Aparna Nancherla, UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: Me, Myself, and Imposter Syndrome

Aparna Nancherla, UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: Me, Myself, and Imposter Syndrome

Superstar comedian Aparna Nancherla joins Zibby to discuss her hilarious and strikingly astute memoir in essays, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome. Aparna describes her writing process (as a “procrastinating perfectionist”), her relationship with her body, her history with anxiety and depression, and her unexpected, unplanned career as a stand-up comedian.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Aparna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest and newest and only memoir, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome. Congratulations.

Aparna Nancherla: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: What made you decide to write a memoir?

Aparna: For me, it more led with the imposter syndrome than the memoir part. The imposter syndrome was something I was struggling with. I’m a stand-up. I was having a lot of performance anxiety. I’d been getting more career opportunities. That had led to an increasing sense of self-doubt rather than the fantasy you have of success where everything is fixed. You’re done. Life is all rainbows and unicorns. Because more success seemed to translate to more mental angst, I started to feel kind of like, oh, no, what’s the point of any of this, then? My existential brain loves to go to those places. Then the self-doubt seemed to get louder. I was like, well, if you have so much to say, why don’t you do some work? I decided to write a book about self-doubt.

Zibby: Amazing. You write in the book about how hard it was for you to write the book, which is always fun, how you’re constantly procrastinating. Of course, you do it in such a clever way. Was it really hard? Tell me about it.

Aparna: Yeah. It was my first book, so I think it was just a new muscle to exercise at all. I naturally am a procrastinating perfectionist, so it was very easy to have an idea of a book in my head and then sit down and be like, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I’m supposed to just write effortlessly and then take my little afternoon coffee break. It was a lot of me coming up against my own unrealistic expectations. I will say I did end up writing it, but I won’t say I had any kind of set routine of, I got up every day at nine AM. For a while, I was going to a writing center. Other times, I would start writing at eleven at night, which I wouldn’t recommend. It was a lot of trial and error of getting it out onto the page.

Zibby: I think it’s far more rare to have the person who sits down, and it all comes out on a regular schedule. I think you have to be three or four novels in or something to have that be your routine and it just comes out. I don’t know.

Aparna: Totally. Sometimes I’ll read in interviews, someone will be like, I just couldn’t stop writing for a month straight. Then it just all came out. I was like, no, that’s not how my muse seems to operate.

Zibby: You talk about a lot of really tough topics. You talk about things that you admit in the book as not having talked about really ever before, starting with your surgeries and talking a lot about your relationship with your body and looks and, yes, the ways the culture plays into that, but your own relationship with how you look, what that means. You have this interesting part where even though you don’t want to be on those lists because it’s terrible, when the guys make lists of the best-looking, and you don’t want to be part of that system, you also don’t want to be excluded from the list, just all these paradoxes that as women, we have to deal with all the time. Tell me a little bit about that and how it felt opening up and why you hadn’t talked about some of the stuff before and why you’re ready to now.

Aparna: Also, some of the appeal of writing a book was that — previously, I had touched on some of these topics in my stand-up. In that sense with stand-up, you only have so much real estate because you are supposed to get to a punchline. Also, you only have so much time to get your point across on stage. It has to be a little more polished. There has to be a little more emotional remove in getting into some of these topics. I wanted to be able to delve into them in a messier, less-resolved way. I think that maybe gave me the opportunity to go to some of these places I hadn’t been able to before where it is these kind of paradoxes you wrestle with where there isn’t a clean “and now I know better” sort of ending.

Zibby: We still have to brush our hair and look in the mirror every day. You can’t get rid of it. Can I read a paragraph from the book? Is that okay?

Aparna: Sure.

Zibby: I love this section. This is along the lines of self-image and everything. You said, “What I’ve learned with time is that no matter how I change what I look like, there is no salvation in it. Yes, looking in the mirror or stepping on a scale can take up your entire brain, but to what end? A fleeting sense of passing muster, but whose? And is it ever enough? I still struggle more often than I care to admit with how both my body and I look and present, but now I can finally see outside of this perpetual dissatisfaction in a way I couldn’t when I was younger and see it for what it is, just another way of grasping at a sense of affinity, a pyramid scheme of acceptance, because most of this endless fixation is for other people, even if it’s often a projected version of them. And why should any system or person have so much to say over how I feel about myself? I have committed to this perspective as a practice because I know I will lose sight of it again, but every new reminder of it provides a respite.” I love that.

Aparna: Thanks.

Zibby: So good. How do you keep this front and center? It’s one thing to sit down and make all these resolutions about acceptance of ourselves. Maybe this is just me. I don’t know. Then to put it into practice all the time and remind yourself of this, do you feel like this did the trick for you?

Aparna: I think it helped to be able to elucidate it on a page. It is, as I say in the book, kind of an ongoing battle. Some days, they’re better than others. I will say I stopped checking social media in a very real way compared to — I used to check it all the time. Now very, very rarely do I go on the platforms. For me, that afforded me a lot of space that I think I needed mentally just being in an industry that is always kind of pitting people against each other. I think there is a real undervaluing of creating room for yourself and room for okay-ness with yourself. I’ve been working very hard in the past few years on just protecting that space and being a lot more considerate towards myself of that space.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. You also talked about your history with depression and how it came on at age nineteen and how you had to cope with that, how it’s hard sometimes for other people to really understand what you’re talking about. You said you started describing the symptoms, and they were like, oh, that must be so hard. You’re like, wait, this is the prologue to the symptoms. You don’t even know. You list a lot of the different meds and the different ways you’ve gotten through this and managed it. Now it’s become a part of your life. Also, you have a chapter on anxiety and how that has played a big part as well. I’ve also struggled with these things and know where you’re coming from on a lot of it. Tell me about your experience there and about these parts of the book.

Aparna: For me, again, some of the first ways I broached these topics was through my stand-up. I think that gave me a certain relationship to them as kind of this compartmentalized thing I could talked about in a more polished way. Because the book let me get more into these nuances, it did let me put down the whole journey of how I first was able to name these things for myself and then later, how my relationship to them changed. I specifically was really interested in writing about, if you do start talking about your own mental health in a more public way, what does that do to your relationship to it internally? I did find that really interesting. When people, maybe, more associated me with someone who would talk about anxiety and depression in their stand-up, it still wasn’t fully conveying the experience of what it is like to actually have it. Sometimes people would ask me, how do you talk about these things and struggle with them? I feel like I struggle, but then there’s no way for me to actually make sense of it or later, translate it to people. To me, it almost felt like a split sense of self sometimes between the more presentational way I would talk about it versus my actual experience of it. I do think the book helped me bridge those two things. Yeah, this is something I talk about in my work, but that’s still a more clean version of the actual living with it day to day.

Zibby: You also point out how it’s now sort of on trend to reveal your mental health struggles, self-care, and whatever’s going on, being real. You’re like, now this is a thing. What do we do with that?

Aparna: Which is very odd, the way it’s been commodified. It’s obviously a positive thing that it’s become more openly talked about. That feels good and like progress, but then it sort of feels like it’s gone to the other extreme where it’s this buzzword or this identity thing where people wear T-shirts that are like, don’t talk to me about my anxiety, or whatever it is. It’s a little strange. Our relationship to it right now feels like it’s in this odd phase.

Zibby: True. I guess we’ll see where this all lands. The pendulum has swung one way. We’ll see what happens. You write a little about deciding to do stand-up. You were like, nobody thought I was funny. It was unexpected at the time. Tell me a little more about that piece of your life and how you feel. I know we’re mid-writers’ strike and all of that, so no details or anything, but just in broad strokes, how you feel about what you do.

Aparna: If you had talked to me as a kid, I never would’ve, in any remote realm of possibility, been like, I’m going to end up as a stand-up comedian. It was something I kind of stumbled into, first from just an interest in comedy and then going to an open mic and realizing it was something anyone could do. Very much, my career has been one foot in front of the other. Oh, no one has turned me away. I guess I’ll just keep going. I’ve always had trouble formulating a concrete goal. Stand-up has been very much the same thing where I showed up, and then everyone seemed okay with it. Then I just kept showing up and going where that led. Even now sometimes I can’t really believe that I do it. There is a little bit of a disconnect where I’m just like, oh, I guess this is my life. I am someone who lives so much in my head that sometimes it feels like there’s a reality going on upstairs and then what’s actually happening. I have to remember to engage with the real world and be like, yeah, people think you’re a stand-up, and you are. You have to go make them laugh tonight.

Zibby: Have you read other comedian memoirs? I read the Seinfeld one. I’m not sure what else I’ve read. Did you read a bunch of others to prepare? Have you read them?

Aparna: I think I read a handful over — I don’t know if I read any to prepare. I do think I was like, I don’t want to steal what someone else was doing, so I will make sure I’m doing my own thing. I think I read Jessi Klein’s essays going into it. Maybe I reread one of Mindy Kaling’s essay collections. I remember I had read Tina Fey’s back when it came out. I was just like, I can’t look at that because it’s going to make me feel very incapable of writing my own book. I had read Amy Poehler’s. I most recently read Maria Bamford’s, but that had come out a lot sooner after I had written mine. I just love the way you hear different people’s voices come so clearly through in their writing.

Zibby: Also, when you read them, those are the edited versions of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s books. Do you know what I mean? It’s hard when we’re writing. You compare what’s on the Word doc to the book. There’s a lot of steps in between.

Aparna: Totally.

Zibby: Would you want to write another book? Are you writing another book?

Aparna: I’m not writing another book at the moment, but I think I’m open to it. I don’t know if it’s a thing where you block out the really hard parts and you’re like, yeah, I could do that again. I think I would just write, maybe, a different style of book. I wouldn’t feel the need to write another vulnerable essay collection any time soon.

Zibby: I loved your résumé of failures and the things that haven’t happened. Then you were like, the fact that somebody else already thought of this is just another failure.

Aparna: On brand. On brand.

Zibby: On brand. Did you really lose your diplomas, or was that just funny?

Aparna: No, I could not tell you where they are.

Zibby: So great, oh, my gosh. What else do you like to do when you’re not working and you’re not writing books? What’s your favorite stuff that you do on your free time?

Aparna: I’m a big reader myself. I think curling up with a book is my happy place. I was a kid who went to the library like it was the candy store. I was so excited. I just love nature, getting out hiking. I live in LA, so I watch a lot of movies. I think that’s just maybe everyone these days. I love, above all, regardless of what I’m doing, spending time with people I love. I feel like even being in comedy, some of the hardest laughs I have are just with friends. That feels ever more valuable, especially after the pandemic.

Zibby: Yes, so true. You have to check out my bookstore in Santa Monica. It’s called Zibby’s Bookshop.

Aparna: Oh, my gosh, I definitely will. Love a bookstore.

Zibby: It opened in February. It’s been so much fun.

Aparna: Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. After reading the book, do you feel like people know everything there is to know about you? Do you feel like you intentionally withheld some very important things that maybe you just want to keep to yourself?

Aparna: I think I tried to be as open as I could. For me, it’s more that, especially with a form like memoir or writing from your life, we’re all constantly changing so quickly as people, even from week to week, day to day, within the same day, that sometimes going back and reading something, I’ll be like, well, I don’t feel exactly like that anymore. It is that balance of being okay with something representing maybe a snapshot of where you were when you wrote it and knowing that you might not exactly be that person anymore.

Zibby: Totally. That’s true. You also — I keep being like, you also did this, and you also did that, but you did a lot of great things in the book. You talked a lot about introversion and how coming out of your shell is supposed to be this great thing. Is it necessarily a good thing? Discuss.

Aparna: I think American culture, period, is very — being outgoing, being the most charismatic person in the room is an unalloyed good thing. I wouldn’t argue that those are bad things, but I do think if you’re not that, that is also okay and a valid way of being, not always pushing yourself to be the center of attention or the person with the perfect anecdote. I have always been a more thoughtful, reserved person. I think before I speak and if I am going to speak, would stand up like I know what I’m going to say ahead of time. It’s a very controlled thing. I think only in the past few years have I really learned to be like, that’s okay. You don’t have to always be pushing yourself to speak more or take up more space than you are. I think there is also, as a woman of color, sometimes this idea that if you’re not trying to take up more room, people aren’t going to give it to you. I’ve had to navigate that line for myself. What is just my own comfort zone? What is me trying to make myself smaller?

Zibby: Gosh, there’s a lot to chew on. When you think about people reading the book, putting it down, sliding it onto the bookshelf, what do you want them to really take away from the read?

Aparna: For me, it is just, these are things that I wrestle with on a daily basis, and maybe connecting with other people in their own struggles with these things. I kind of went for topics where I was like, I don’t think I’m ever going to cleanly resolve my feelings or thoughts on these things. I think it’s nice to know that we’re all on our own journeys at all times with different aspects of our lives, whether it be our bodies or our mental health or the way we relate to other people or our work, and just meeting someone in wherever they are on their journey and hopefully giving them a little company.

Zibby: That’s lovely. Everyone can use a little company, especially through the tougher terrains. What is your parting advice for aspiring authors?

Aparna: Oh, my gosh. I would say my parting advice is even in your lowest moments, that’s still part of the process. Hating the book, hating yourself, you’re still on task.

Zibby: Not a straight line, this process. That’s for sure.

Aparna: Yes, not a straight line.

Zibby: Great. Aparna, thank you so much. Congratulations on Unreliable Narrator. I wish you all the best. It’s not always fun having to market a book as an introvert, but I’m wishing you all the best.

Aparna: Thank you so much.

Zibby: I hope you have a fun time. Go check out the store.

Aparna: Thank you. I will.

Zibby: Take care.

Aparna: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: Me, Myself, and Imposter Syndrome by Aparna Nancherla

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