Happy new year, y’all! It’s been a hectic holiday season, but I still tried to make time to catch up on the important stuff. Like finally getting around to reading Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (published in November 2011).

Kaling is perhaps best known for playing Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office, in addition to being a writer and an executive producer for the show. No surprise that, as one of the few awesome Asian American women on primetime TV, she was recently featured as Audrey magazine’s Winter 2011 cover girl.

Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is a very funny and charming hodgepodge of stories from her childhood, anecdotes about show biz, behind-the-scenes tidbits about working on The Office, and random commentary on everything from Hollywood and comedy to dieting, friendship, and men (I totally LOL-ed at observations like “Why Do Men Put on Their Shoes So Slowly?”).

These are interspersed with clever “pliests” (her term for “a piece with a list-y quality”). Some of my faves include “Alternate Titles for This Book” (which parodies other book titles and pop culture trends), “Franchises I Would Like to Reboot” (I would so watch a Ghostbusters remake about girl ghostbusters!), and “Revenge Fantasies While Jogging” (a technique I fully intend to try, just as soon as I get myself off this couch).

For me, the biggest issue is not that the book isn’t funny, but that it reads more like a collection of blogs and tweets than a cohesive, fully fleshed-out comic memoir. Kaling admits to as much in her intro, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it left me wanting more. And the parts I wanted more of came mostly from the beginning of the book, the memoir-ish bits about Kaling growing up as the child of immigrant professionals.

Kaling talks a little bit about being Indian American in an interview for EW’s Shelf Life blog:

EW: I like that you incorporate your Indian heritage in your book, but it’s different from an ethnic coming of age kind of story. It both is and isn’t a central part of the book.

MK: There’s something really interesting that someone once said. I wish I knew who it was, but when you are an ethnic minority and doing something creative, there’s this tendency to either … you want to tell these stories that are really just Indian-centric, and I love Mira Nair’s movies, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s books and short stories are so great, I love them. I’m not even saying I have the ability to write like that, but … I wish I knew who coined this phrase, something like, “I neither rely on or deny being Indian.” That’s just sort of the way I go about it. If it comes into places because it’s funny, I’ll bring it up, but if it’s not, then I don’t. It’s weird because I think sometimes people do want you to tell this kind of Bend It Like Beckham story about how my parents never wanted me to be a writer, and you’re like, “No, they were fine.” They were more into success. They wanted to be able to brag about me, so whatever it was, I think that sometimes that doesn’t fulfill the expectations that some people have, knowing that I’m Indian.

Though Kaling doesn’t fit Asian American female stereotypes, and hers is obviously not a typical immigrant narrative, her experiences as a young woman of color in 21st-century Hollywood is part of what makes her story unique, the kind of story that hasn’t really been told yet. Kaling is a kick-arse writer, actor, producer, and self-professed comedy nerd who also happens to be Indian American. And it’s refreshing that she neither relies on or denies it.

It’s clear from the book that Kaling is pretty normal, sensible, and relatable, self-deprecating without self-loathing, qualities that are perhaps rare for a comedian. In the chapter “Roasts Are Terrible,” Kaling writes, “I’m sad that a legitimate rung on the ladder of making it in comedy is writing hateful stuff about total strangers.” She seems to want her comedy and her writing to have a positive impact, especially for her target audience, which appears to be teenage girls and twentysomethings. When she says very sincerely that “Being called fat is not like being called stupid or unfunny, which is the worst thing you could ever say to me,” or advises young girls “Don’t Peak in High School,” or encourages anyone struggling creatively to “write your own part,” she emerges as the kind of real and approachable role model that seems in short supply in pop culture these days.

And yes, there are the inevitable comparisons to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. But just because Kaling and Fey are both funny women (in an age where the mainstream is finally acknowledging that there is such a thing), that doesn’t mean that their books are or should be the same. Sure, in a lot of ways, Fey’s career and memoir helped pave the way for Kaling’s. But Kaling’s stories (of which I hope we’ll see more and more) also help diversify the kinds of narratives we see and read by/about women in Hollywood.

There’s room for both, and then some. Kaling suggests as much when she talks about why she’s not talking about women being funny: “I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.” Amen, sister.

 

– CKH

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