QueeReads: Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

Welcome to QueeReads, our monthly review of the queer books I’ve been reading. I’m frequently asked about books that feature LGBTQA+ protagonists, themes, or authors so I’m here to share what I’ve found and what I thought. If you have a suggestion for future #QueeReads, please reach out!

I came across this book unexpectedly in a New York Times article about LGBTQ+ novels. I say unexpectedly not because I didn’t expect a gay coming-of-age story on a list of queer books, but because I had never heard of it before. Not in class, not on book lists, nowhere.

Written in 2009 by Rakesh Satyal, Blue Boy features the story of Kiran Sharma. Kiran is a 12-year-old Indian-American that lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his immigrant parents. Narrated by the humorous and confident protagonist, Blue Boy feels like a set of short essays that take place over a few months of Kiran’s life as he prepares to perform at his school’s annual talent show. Each chapter meditates on a different internal struggle that he works through—either with his queerness, his relationship with his parents, or his balancing act between American and Indian cultures. By reckoning with what makes him different, Kiran starts to suspect he is not destined to be an outcast, but a reincarnation of a god.

Blue Boy won the Lambda Literary Award (which goes to works that celebrate LGBTQ+ themes) and the Prose/Poetry award from the Association of Asian American Studies.

“I want you to see the world the way I see it […] to understand that this is the world, this is the acceptance, this is the big bear hug and the gold-star sticker. There is such beauty in the world, despite all of the harsh realities about it, and they are contained here for me. They are contained in the plié, in a rond de jambe. I have my own language. I am my own language.” Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

What I loved:

  • The novel opens with this incredible scene where Kiran sneaks into his mother’s makeup drawer (while humming the Mission Impossible theme, no less). The descriptions of the powders and paints he uses to explore and bend his gender combined with the increasing suspense of his mother downstairs is gorgeously written. If I ever teach writing and literature, I’ll definitely be sharing this chapter with my students.
  • Kiran’s characterization diverges from the familiar tropes of the stereotypical coming-out/-of-age story. He is not a flawless character and his confidence in himself is unrelenting. Instead of asking himself what he needs to change to fit in, he labels what makes makes him different as not shameful, but undeniably part of him—divine. It’s a subtle, but radical divergence from the “usual” narrative.
  •  Blue Boy not only explores queerness, but is a window in which Satyal describes the culture of this Cincinnatian, Indian-American community. Kiran’s time is divided between school, home, and the various visits to temple and parties his family attends every weekend with families from this community. These scenes are insightful and my favorites in the entire novel.
  • It takes place in Ohio (my home state) and is full of great one-liners regarding the location. There are a lot of funny moments throughout the book, but these references made me laugh the most.

“Even though my mother has come to the Midwest from the most exotic and dangerous of lands, Ohio can scare the hell out of her. India may be full of man-eating tigers, but Ohio is full of Ohioans.” Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

What I didn’t love so much:

  • To me, the narrator feels a lot like an adult writing a kid. Although Kiran often points to his high-reading level and there are lots of quips that are entertaining, the overall character voice becomes slightly unbelievable over time.
  • Written in 2009 and taking place in the 1990s, it was written before same-sex marriage legislation so it’s references to same-sex marriage and relationships feel somewhat dated and less relevant than other texts written today. (This is less of a con and more of an observation; I’m being nit-picky here!)
  • One thing neither the reviews nor the descriptions mentioned was the amount of sexual content there would be in the text. I’m usually not a prude about this (especially in literature exploring sexuality!) but because the novel reads and feels so much like YA with its 12-year-old narrator, I was surprised by the amount of it and it’s importance to the overall plot. Good literature makes you uncomfortable, but in this case, certain passages felt over-the-top. I think I would’ve felt differently if I had known about it upfront, but I want to be honest and say the idea of recommending this book to a relative makes my face turn bright red. (Relatives, if you’re reading this, maybe wait until next month’s QueeRead!). (Also if anyone else has read this already, I’d love to discuss this point further, message me!)

My Short Review:

Overall rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5 stars)

Lovely coming-of-age story of a queer, Indian-American kid who discovers his sexuality, his sense of belonging within his community, and connection to humanity. Great for anyone who’s looking to read more diverse stories, but I want to note that there is a lot of sexual content (just in case that’s not normally your scene, or if you’re expecting a “PG” YA novel).

Add this book to your shelf on Goodreads!

If you have a suggestion for future #QueeReads, please let me know in the comments!