Mindy Kaling’s new book, Why Not Me?, released Tuesday, is an invitation to chill with a plucky person we think we already like. It’s about trading gossip, exposing insecurities, finding love, righting misconceptions — but also just about shooting the shit. An Indian-American woman who’s already well-liked finds new ways in this book to further endear herself in our hearts.
Only loosely a memoir, Why Not Me? isn’t all that profound, however. It’s unfair to ask it to be.
Instead, the strength of Kaling’s book lies in the unabashed disclosure, heartfelt vulnerability, and commitment to hard work that each of her essays conveys. She reveals emotions like terror, disappointment, and gratefulness with a poignancy that doesn’t surprise us, but it makes welcoming her into our social circle much easier. “It’s weird when you feel your dream slipping away from you,” she writes. It’s a fear we all have about ourselves — but her admission of her own insecurity disarms us and draws us in. In the same vein, Kaling admits, “It is sad when your hopes and your abilities do not line up.”
Kaling exposes her ambiguity toward her body image: “I’m completely not at peace with how I look.” “My deep dark secret,” she divulges, “is that I absolutely do try to conform to normal standards of beauty. I am just not remotely successful at it.” She can’t deny that she feels a twinge of disappointment at the thought that she’ll never see one of her shoulder blades, but she aspires for a different image altogether — this is the one she has achieved in Hollywood in a short time.
What she offers us is the challenge to find more interesting things about her to discuss than whether she or Gisele Bündchen “wore it best.” Her refusal to be boring forces us to look past her curves.
Kaling is unusually averse to boredom. I love this. She exhausts us with her need for endless fodder for conversation and small talk. As a remedy, she devours gossip as insatiably as a box of Girl Scout cookies that someone brings into work. Even her birth name Vera (meaning “true”) is a truth “too boring to be made up.” So it got changed. The complacency that would come from having a less than uproariously entertaining day would sooner kill Kaling. It’s that restlessness and rejection of the dull that has compelled her to create wonderful scripts and develop interesting characters.
What’s more, Why Not Me? experiments with what an essay can be. One in particular, “A Perfect Courtship in My Alternate Life,” is worth a read. Kaling imagines what her life might look like had she become a Latin teacher at Dalton. It is Kaling’s story of successfully finding love without relinquishing any of the cheeky overfriendliness that we like about her. She reworks the aesthetic possibilities of memoir by conveying the insecurities of wooing a fellow teacher — relentlessly, no less — across email, Facebook, and text. She isn’t so different in this alternate universe that we wouldn’t recognize her.
In the first episode of Season 4 of The Mindy Project, which Kaling wrote and premiered on Hulu last night, her character finds herself in another alternate plotline in which she’s in an open relationship with Joseph Gordon Levitt. Actually, it’s something of a nightmare for her!
At this point in her career — as one of Hollywood’s most successful writers, showrunners, and comedians of color today — Kaling is reflecting on her status. Subjunctive “what if” scenarios afford her a narrative space to suggest that none of this had to happen this way.
But it did. It resulted precisely because of Kaling’s commitment to hard work. A constant theme within Why Not Me? circles around Kaling’s intense hunger and drive, which her immigrant parents inspired in her from a young age. She knows where she’s come from and how far she’s made it. She recognizes that she would’ve never gotten to where she is today had it not been for “the tiniest bit of bravery.” Kaling dismisses that whole smoke and mirrors act that Hollywood’s image is built on — the “I woke up like this” illusion.
“If you believe in yourself and work hard, you have a fighting shot at having your dreams come true,” writes Kaling. She knows she might seem entitled — but she’s not apologizing for it. She’s earned it. In her world, you have to deserve confidence. “The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it.”
Her best take-home advice? “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.”
Kaling’s book redeems work as something that smart American women do. As something that should be made more visible. We need to see more of it. Not the drudgery of “workaholism,” but the rather, the frenzied and passionate thrill you get from writing screenplays late into the early morning and forgetting to shower.
Why Not Me? has an air of self-promotion. But let’s face it: an Indian-American woman, who has had to work tirelessly to get only half the recognition that others in Hollywood have received — not to mention all the criticism — gets to tell us about it. Kaling makes herself hyper-visible by making hard work hyper-visible.
She should be allowed to boast.
Now, the title makes sense. A cousin of mine once shared a similar quote with me: “If not you, then who?”
Kaling entreats us to think about why it couldn’t have been her to rise to the level she has in Hollywood. What alternate reality could it have been?
This isn’t necessarily a thematic continuation from Kaling’s 2012 book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). The essays in this new collection don’t complain that people aren’t paying attention to Kaling or that she’s being left out of the conversation. Rather, they show a Kaling who’s content to chill out with the readers who already like her. She just adds context as to how she got here and why she deserves our attention.
In her introduction, Kaling writes, “Every kid wants approval, but my desire to be well liked was central to my personality.” Perhaps her need for attention and approval is a conceit. Kaling’s reflection on her status in Hollywood negotiates a churlish line between entitlement and grace. An affected air of bravura invites readers not to take her too seriously, but to simultaneously understand that her struggles — not intractable or tragic, really — round out a girl we think we already like. Perhaps even a little bit more after finishing the book.