I read Mindy Kaling’s first memoir/essay collection Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and other concerns) about four years ago, but I just realized that I never actually wrote a review for it – I also just realized that I never made a “memoir” shelf, so that’s been corrected. I’ll go back and write a review of Kaling’s first book at some point, I promise.
The cliff notes version of my thoughts on Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me is that I enjoyed it, but Kaling was very clearly being selective with what she wanted to share and what she wanted to leave out, and the whole thing felt slightly incomplete. Overall, it was funny but ultimately unsatisfying.
I’m happy to report, therefore, that Why Not Me? is a much more focused and tightly-constructed memoir. Kaling’s first book was a mishmash of funny essays and stories about her childhood and time spent working in Hollywood; Why Not Me? has a much clearly defined thesis: how Mindy Kaling achieved her success as a writer/actor/producer, what contributed to this and what didn’t help, and how she grapples with that success.
There are still a few funny essays thrown in – “Things to Bring to My Dinner Party”, “4am Worries”, and my favorite, “A Perfect Courtship in My Alternate Life” where Kaling imagines an alternate-universe Mindy who teaches Latin at a private school in New York and has a sparring flirtation with the history teacher. She has a whole chapter of the emails exchanged by this fictional version of herself and the history teacher, and I would absolutely watch that movie – especially because I imagined Chris Messina as the history teacher. Kaling probably did too, because when she’s introducing the section she writes, “I will have a stern man in anything I ever write; I just love a gruff guy with a heart of gold. I guess what I’m saying is Walter Matthau is the man of my dreams.”
But for the most part, the book deals with Kaling’s work. She has a chapter titled “A Day in the Life of Mindy Kaling” and guys, Mindy Kaling’s life is exhausting. On days when she’s shooting her show, she gets up at 5 am and goes to bed at 12:30 am. In between is nothing except work, meal breaks, and a nap. “About 50 percent of the time,” Kaling writes, “I have enough energy to remove my clothes and put on pajamas when I go to bed. Otherwise I just fall asleep in the clothes I went to work in, which I like to think of as a sexy, ongoing walk of shame.”
For me, the message that comes across most clearly in Why Not Me? (and to a lesser extent, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is this: Mindy Kaling is not successful because of luck or good connections. Mindy Kaling is successful because she works so, so hard for everything she has. She might not be your favorite comedian, her show might not be your favorite show, she might not understand that no one really cares that much about her relationship with BJ Novak (seriously girl: you dated, you broke up, you’re still friends. We’ve all heard the song; stop releasing remixes and pretending they’re new), but you can’t deny that Kaling has earned everything she has.
The title of the book addresses this plainly – like a lot of women in comedy (especially minority women in comedy) Kaling frequently encounters people who act like she is doing something radical and presumptuous by appearing on TV.
“The conversation about me and my show is so frequently linked to the way I look that people who are deciding whether or not to watch my show must think subconsciously, Oh, that’s that show about body acceptance in chubby women, because that’s all they seem to hear about it. And my show is about so much more than that! It’s about the struggles of a delusional Indian thirtysomething trying to scam on white dudes!”
In its best moments, this book is a response to all the people who ever looked at Mindy Kaling and sneered, “Why should you be on TV?” Kaling’s response: “Because I work really hard and also, why not?”
At the end of the book, Kaling addresses the concept of confidence. It’s something she gets asked about a lot, and she cites a Q&A she did once where a young Indian girl asked her where she gets her confidence.
“Context is so important. If this question had been asked by a white man, I might actually have been offended, because the subtext of it would have been completely different. When an adult white man asks me, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ the tacit assumption behind it is: because you don’t look like a person who should have any confidence. You’re not white, you’re not a man, and you’re not thin or conventionally attractive. How were you able to overlook these obvious shortcomings to feel confident?’
…Confidence is just entitlement. Entitlement has gotten a bad rap because it’s used almost exclusively for the useless children of the rich, reality TV stars, and Conrad Hilton Jr., who gets kicked off an airplane for smoking pot in the lavatory and calling people peasants or whatever. But entitlement in and of itself isn’t so bad. Entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it. …Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.”
Verdict: four out of five stars