LA-based comedian Aparna Nancherla will be in Seattle on September 27 for the book tour of Unreliable Narrator. She chose to do standup instead of a traditional book tour and “sort of throw books at people as they’re trying to leave.” In an interview, Nancherla spoke about her fascination with the human condition, exploring the interiority of her life with nuance (and humor), her favorite comics, and what makes her laugh.
Savita Krishnamoorthy: You are refreshingly candid in Unreliable Narrator. Would it be accurate to assume that the title was intentionally intended to be tongue-in-cheek?
Aparna Nancherla: As someone who still struggles with self-doubt, I often see myself in distorted ways compared to how the rest of the world sees me. In other words, my own impostor syndrome means I can’t square my inner feelings with my outer accomplishments. In that sense, to the world, I may be an unreliable narrator when it comes to my own perception. However, on the flip side, the world may also assume other things about me that are untrue, given this same discrepancy, and so, it can work the other way as well in which I am correcting the public record and the outside lens is the unreliable narrator. So, you could say the title is a finger pointing both ways, both at myself, and a mirror reflection of myself pointing back out at the world. How’s that for an answer in the form of a riddle?
SK: The collection of essays is extensively researched and unfolds as a memoir, laced with your signature sharp wit and sardonic humor. Behind this veneer of facetiousness, you offer deep insights into the interiority of your life, of your struggles with depression, anxiety, imposter syndrome, and self-doubt, making it incredibly relatable to the reader. Did the writing naturally progress in this blend of memoir and personal growth style? Did your academic background in psychology perhaps, (subliminally) steer the narrative arc in this direction?
AN: I wanted to write a book because I knew it would be a chance to explore the interiority of my life with more nuance and delve into gray areas than I’ve done in more strictly comedic work—such as my standup and previous writing. To that end, I knew it would be a very personal book, but with some humor where I could fit it in. My own background in psychology underlies the truth that I am forever fascinated with the human condition and how we all make sense of our brief time here, both in terms of others and ourselves. My existentialism and my humor are two sides of the same coin. I knew writing about these topics would be a chance to interrogate my own journeys with all of them, which are still ever-evolving, but I wanted to at least try to get a snapshot of this specific period in my life. I have to credit my Mom for my unrelenting fascination with personal growth. Thanks, Mom (no sarcasm intended)!
SK: You say that you’re inherently shy. How does this work to your advantage when you’re performing in front of an audience?
AN: For me, standup is a way of maintaining some control in front of a group of people. It’s a very choreographed dialogue between you and a crowd, where you get to say what you have to say in a deliberate way, and they are encouraged to react in a very specific way. Even though it doesn’t always go well, it does feel like the expectations of me socially feel much clearer than in, say, an interaction with a stranger at a party. The difference between me onstage and off stage is not necessarily dramatic, but I am not trying nearly as hard to be the center of attention. I find others’ attention both scary and intriguing, and performing allows me to walk that tightrope, for better or for worse.
SK: As a brown woman in the comedy industry that is still primarily (white) male-dominated (in the U.S.), what changes have you observed as the number of female performers increases?
AN: I’m glad it no longer feels surprising or rare to do shows with multiple performers from less represented communities. The Internet has opened many doors in terms of exposure and finding an audience and realizing that there is a hunger for stories outside the status quo has been one of those benefits. The bigger encouraging wave for me is these things have become less niche and more just humans talking about their lives, rather than always some grand political statement. Unfortunately, with the current climate in the U.S., comedians from more marginalized groups may receive more feedback or repercussions just for existing than others, which can often make them into political statements whether they’d like to be or not.
SK: In recent years, the stand-up comedy industry in India has exploded, with comics performing in both English and regional languages to sold-out shows. Do you follow any comedians in India or in the diaspora here in the U.S.?
AN: I am not as in touch with the standup comedy scene in India, but I am delighted to hear it’s having a boom. I have many American peers I look up to and whose work I respect, whether that’s more established comedians like Hasan Minhaj or Hari Kondabolu, or the next generation like Fareeha Khan, Pallavi Gunalan, and Nik Dodani. I see more and more comics from the South Asian diaspora these days, and it’s heartening to witness.
SK: Who are your favorite comics of all time?
AN: There are too many to name, but to name just a very few. Maria Bamford has always been one of my very favorites, both as a comedian and a human. My friends Jo Firestone and Maeve Higgins and I share some of the hardest laughs together. And Naomi Ekperigin and Sheng Wang are both just the absolute best.
SK: What makes you laugh? What brings you joy?
AN: As mentioned earlier, spending time with good friends and relating the absolute absurdity of everyday life. Sharing a laugh with a loved one is an evergreen source of joy.
Aparna Nancherla: The Unreliable Narrator Book Tour Featuring Mostly Standup
Wed Sep 27, 2023
7:00 PM (Doors 6:00 PM)
153 14th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122
$28.00 – $30.00