Unfaithful Narrators: I, Me, and the Imposter Syndrome
Written by Aparna Nancherla
Viking: 304 pages, $28
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Aparna Nancherla is not the funny girl I expected. Not about our recent lunch at Los Feliz’s Figaro Bistrot, and not about the book he’s here to discuss: “The Unreliable Narrator,” a collection of his highly smart, deliciously readable, harrowing and — well — occasionally humorous new essays stitched together. frayed thread of self-respect.
Interestingly, Nancherala is a well-known, respected comedian. Maybe he cracked you up on his Netflix set or Comedy Central specials; in oddball series, including “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Master of None”; or as the voice of animated characters in “BoJack Horseman” and “The Great North.” So his relative sincerity on the page is a surprise, though hardly a shock. You know that quote about comedy being a refuge from chronic sadness? Evidence of “unreliable narrators”.
“On the heels of moderate success as a comedian,” Nancherla congratulates us on Page 1, “I still only cautiously admit that I’ve achieved something or that I might do it again… It’s almost like I have impostor syndrome, mostly me, and the rest. My shadow… Take your daughter to work day every day!
A few minutes into our conversation, I confess that I came to his book and this lunch hoping for a minute of laughter rather than a deep dive into several overlapping syndromes. “Comedy reminds me how silly my hemming and hawing can be in the grand scheme of things,” she says. “But I wrote the book to explore less resolved parts of myself. If you need to reveal a joke, you can’t dig deep enough into the gray areas of life.”
The collection includes some witty banter from comedians and even serious books, but there’s much more. The sum of its parts is a cohesive mashup of studies and statistics on self-esteem filtered through Nancherla’s personal experience, creating a portrait of the societal flaws that make and break her (and many of us). Racism, for one. “As a child,” she writes, “I knew I was South Asian. But I really believed I was almost white (like a fake Chanel bag, so close, and yet not quite).” Nancherla quotes sociologist Tracy McMillan Cottam on internalized oppression, commenting, “It’s the model minority way – there’s no one to blame but yourself!”
Between sips of passion fruit iced tea, Nancherla discusses how being a woman of color has affected her career. “You encounter negative experiences that don’t seem to affect your white or male counterparts. Like being considered for fewer opportunities because of your looks. And when you get the job, you never know whether you’re being valued for your true abilities or being judged as ‘wook’ set dressing.
True to form, Nancherla takes more than his share of responsibility for this injustice. “When I started my career in entertainment, I didn’t know what my goal was. I was surprised that I was allowed to show myself, not just because of my outward appearance but also because of my own self-doubt.”
Each chapter of “The Unreliable Narrator” plumbs one of Nancherla’s many emotional pain points. “Be free, you wrinkly ghost!” Opens, “I was never quite on board with my face” and goes into detail Nancherla underwent surgery to correct a droopy eyelid and underbite. “Considering that so many beautiful people have done nothing to achieve their looks, you’d think that people who put in the time and effort to achieve them would be more respected under the ‘bootstrap’ mentality of the American Dream. But no.” He’s ultimately ambivalent about it: perhaps he should have tried to succeed naturally. “On some level,” he concludes, “I’m jealous I didn’t give myself a chance.”
In the same chapter, Nancherla recounts the ups and downs of her college battle with anorexia. “I know what you’re thinking. In an arena usually dominated by white women, I’m a trailblazer! Representation is important!” Then she dropped the joke: “The ugly truth was that my body disappearing made me more visible — in a good way.”
It’s not just the book’s serious note but the weight of Nancherla’s duality that makes its message stand out — a kind of counter-programming against the go-go girlboss narrative that dominates so many women’s memoirs. Is it anti-feminist, I ask?
“Questioning or expressing doubt does not automatically mean that a woman is small or weak,” says Nancherla. “It’s a construct that’s drilled into us. The masculine ideal is to present yourself without fear or hesitation. A more feminine approach is to explore the conflicts between seeking power. I find the woman’s way much more attractive. What is wrong with expressing doubts? I don’t even know who I would be without it.”
Also highly praised: Nancharla doesn’t offer the standard it-gets-better catharsis, which might indicate that confidence comes standard with Nancharla-level success. “That’s the clever thing about imposter syndrome,” she says. “It feels really undeniable. Mine has only gotten stronger as I’ve built my career.”
A few weeks after my lunch with Nancherla, I caught him in his element, owning the stage at the sold-out Elysian Theater. He was a consummate professional, perfectly delivering a monologue about his flawed self, his honesty on the page transformed into joy on stage. After the show, she introduced me to her fiancé, Indie book publisher Gabriel Levinson. Belying sincere praise for her performance, Nancherla noted that her first book pub date was only a few weeks away, an experience that would send even the healthiest writer into a crisis of self-doubt. I asked if there was anything he regretted putting in the book.
“I put no limits on writing about my own life,” he said. “My only gripe is not revealing too much about the other people in my life, since their stories are not entirely mine to tell.”
When it comes to himself though, Nancherla is unabashedly and unapologetically expressive. He sees his work beyond comedy, as a way to reach readers who may need more than a laugh.
“I still struggle with a lot of what I write,” she admits. “Mental illness, productivity, being the center of attention. I wanted to give voice to how much ambiguity and competing emotions and messiness inform the process of being alive. I hope that by sharing my own weaknesses, I can make some space for readers.”
Just don’t expect him to feel great about it. “I guess I’m both annoyed that I wrote it,” she says, “and glad that it’s out of my hands and out into the world.”
Maran is the author of “The New Old Me” and a dozen other books. He lives in Silver Lake.