“I was a kid who loved books,” says Maulik Pancholy. “But I was also a kid who never saw myself in the books I read. I don’t think I realized as a young person the effects of that. I thought it was normal to never see myself. As an adult, I look back and realize that without that kind of representation, you can start to feel like your own story doesn’t matter.”
So Pancholy, a member of the LGBTQ community and nationally famous for his roles on the TV hits 30 Rock and Weeds (and locally for his stage work at The Shakespeare and Studio Theatre), decided to rectify the matter.
His resulting book, The Best at It, is aimed at middle-grade students between the ages of 8 and 12. Its protagonist is Rahul Kapoor, a young Indian boy in middle America. The story chronicles Rahul’s journey of self-acceptance and fuller understanding of himself, not just as a gay youth, but of his own quirks (he has OCD) and his heritage.
Simple and direct in his style, though far from simplistic, Pancholy deals with a breathtaking array of topics, artfully woven together into a beautifully quilted whole. Everything from bullying to cultural enlightenment to finding that one thing that distinguishes you from the pack is touched upon. It’s a stunning page-turner, filled with humor and gentle suspense, that ultimately swells with emotional power.
The 45-year-old drew inspiration from his own experience growing up in Ohio and Indiana, such as Rahul joining his school’s Mathletes squad. “Oh my gosh, I was such a mathlete,” Pancholy laughs. “I was a really competitive mathlete, too!”
The novel also focuses on Rahul’s complicated relationship with his Indian heritage, simultaneously wanting to embrace it fully and push it away, as if it were something to be embarrassed about in his predominantly white community. The lessons Rahul learns are powerful reminders to young readers that our cultures are what truly set us apart, making us all distinct and beautiful creatures. In these days of Presidential-prompted racial divisiveness, Pancholy’s novel provides all readers an antidote to hate, offering the younger ones a roadmap for understanding the importance of unity, acceptance, and love.
“We can’t discount the weight of what it means to grow up gay or what it means to grow up an immigrant — that specificity is so important,” he says. “But I also think that there’s universal feelings around those things. I hope that boys who identify as straight and white will also identify with Rahul, or girls will identify with Rahul, or trans kids will identify with Rahul. Because I think that, in the end, it’s about a kid who just feels different and wants so badly to be loved for who he is. I think that’s what most of us want.”
Maulik Pancholy will appear at Politics & Prose for a reading and a conversation with Gautam Raghavan, editor of West Wingers, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. The event is free. 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919 or visit www.politics-prose.com.