Journalist Prachi Gupta’s latest book They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us is a poignant memoir that engages with issues of patriarchy, mental health crisis, and structural racism that shaped her own life and relationships with her immediate family members while growing up as a second generation Indian American.
In journalism, Gupta made her mark in 2016 when she interviewed Ivanka Trump for an article in the Cosmopolitan, triggering President Trump. Gupta is also the author of AOC: Fighter, Phenom, Changemaker, a biography of Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. They Called Us Exceptional, on the other hand, is political in a whole different way, where the personal is political.
In 2019, Gupta published a poignant essay about her brother Yush’s untimely death in Jezebel. This was a deeply personal narrative that celebrated her brother’s life, while also providing an unflinching account of the mental health challenges he faced in the last few years of his life. Yush died due to pulmonary embolism, possibly brought about by a risky height enhancing surgery that he had undertaken.
Reading between the lines, her essay about her brother was also a critique of standards of toxic masculinity and racism that particularly impact self-perceptions and real-life opportunities of Asian American men. They Called Us Exceptional is a prolonged version of that essay. But it is also much more, as it covers the entire life span of Gupta as she puts her complicated relationship with all her family members under scrutiny.
Gupta’s book is reminiscent of the Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong’s critically acknowledged book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Like Vuong, Gupta’s book is a long letter to her mother, scathing and yet full of tenderness, as she explores their troubled relationship at different parts of her life. The book progresses through multiple chapters, each representing an unraveling aspect of her relationship with her parents, her brother, and her grandparents.
We learn about Gupta’s childhood in the primarily white suburbs in Pennsylvania, where the family lived while her father left a lucrative career in computer technology to pursue a passion for medicine. The early chapters describe her intimate world within a nuclear family, during a period when the outside world seemed harsh to adjust to. She also recounts her father’s growing affluence over the years as a private medical practitioner, and the consequent generosity that was granted to Gupta and her brother, at least initially.
The story becomes much more complicated by the time Gupta reaches high school, as she increasingly becomes a target of her father’s rage, indifference, and even physical violence from time to time. Describing these events, Gupta both admonishes her mother for being complicit in her father’s violence, while also acknowledging her mother’s helplessness as an immigrant stay-at-home mom.
Some of the later chapters also engage with her mother’s mental health challenges as well, mostly in reaction to structural violence that the latter had to go through being married to Gupta’s father. These were also the moments where Gupta felt a gradual alienation from her brother, her otherwise biggest ally, as each sibling started to navigate the world through specific gendered lenses.
It is not easy to publicly write about the cruelty of those we love. This is particularly difficult when one is an ethnic minority in the U.S., which has recently seen white supremacist sentiment and anti-Asian violence. Gupta was acutely aware of the potential harm that her writing might cause by perpetuating cultural stereotypes about Indian men. Yet silence was not an option. Gupta delicately weaves a narrative that acknowledges weaknesses and mental health challenges that each of her beloved family member had to grapple with, with a particular focus on her father’s narcissism and manipulativeness that made theeir relationship vacillate between heated confrontations and long periods of alienation.
Though much of this is a story about unique individuals, Gupta also acknowledges the impacts of the model minority myth — the need to be respectful and successful — and cross-cultural gender norms that contributed to the perpetuation of patriarchal violence at home.
Gupta also tenderly analyzes her relationship with her mother, who she views as both complicit in Gupta’s ill treatment at the hands of her father, while also being a victim of the same man herself. The book follows the trajectory of Gupta’s life from middle school to college, her engagement and breakup, and her career changes, which run parallel to her increasing alienation from her family of origin.
Yush’s death, at the end of the book, and her temporary reconciliation with her parents brings the book to a full circle, making us think about love and accountability in a cross-cultural setting.
The fact that South Asians are often considered as a model minority, a myth that many in the (primarily) Indian diaspora happily perpetuate, is a well-known fact. The harm that such a myth causes both to large sections of BIPOC communities, and to the specific ‘model’ groups, is also well-discussed in popular literature and academic scholarship.
Gupta’s book surprised me in its rawness of emotions, and its front seat view of the havoc that this myth can have on the mental health of many families. This is also a book about our most intimate relationships, our complex feelings of love and rage, and the gendered politics of mental health care, which is universal throughout our human existence.
Seattle University’s RoundGlass India Center, in partnership with Elliott Bay Book Company, hosts a special evening on February 20 at Pigott Auditorium with author Prachi Gupta. The event will be moderated by inclusion strategist Ruchika Tulshyan (Inclusion on Purpose). Register for free here.