BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- It’s hard enough being a minority, dealing with bias and misunderstanding from those unlike you.
But this can be child’s play compared with being a highly successful one, coping with the pressures of being America’s designated representative of an underrepresented culture.
The pressure starts internally. But once you attain some degree of fame, it is magnified by members of groups who very rarely see themselves on TV or in movies unless it’s related to a story about a crime, immigration or some stereotype.
Aasif Mandvi, the Indian-American actor and comedian who is best known for being the Senior Muslim Correspondent on “The Daily Show,” describes in his hilarious new book, “No Land’s Man,” how fraught with conflicting emotions and expectations such success can be.
Mandvi, who was born in India, was raised in England and went to high school in Florida, spends most of his book telling readers about how his background and his family’s disparate views of “American-ness” shaped his approach to acting.
The coming-to-America parts that cast the spotlight on Mandvi’s USA-loving father and business-savvy mother are precious in their innocence and true belief in the promise of their adopted country.
Mandvi’s stories about maturing from an awkward teen geek to the most adored Michael Jackson impersonator in his high school -- and then struggling to eventually become a respected working actor -- are heartening. And all the more so if you listen to the audio version of the book, which Mandvi narrated himself and is side-splittingly funny.
But what interested me most about “No Land’s Man” is what happened when Mandvi hit the big time on Jon Stewart’s show.
“I was a terrible example of a Muslim and knew nothing about the news except what I learned from watching ‘The Daily Show.’ The last thing I had any knowledge of was how to be a Muslim comedy journalist person,” Mandvi writes. “I spent the first year on the show convinced that I was the wrong guy for the job and that they would soon discover that they’d made a terrible mistake.”
But after a while he started getting shout-outs on the street -- from Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and Muslims, who would thank him for being their guy on “The Daily Show.”
Mandvi was soon being treated like a Muslim superstar, a representative, a spokesperson, an advocate -- sometimes by true advocates and others working diligently to fight ugly stereotypes.
“It all made me incredibly uncomfortable ... [in part because] I liked it. I liked knowing what I got to say on the show, even though I didn’t always write it, was having an impact. Not in terms of policy, or to lawmakers, but to Muslims in America,” wrote Mandvi.
“The fact that there was a brown person, openly identified as Muslim, on national television, talking about the relationship between America and the Muslim world from a vastly underrepresented point of view was a big deal for them. That that brown person happened to be me was absurdly bananas, but it started to make me feel, dare I say ... Muslimy. The whole thing was very unsettling.”
Having honed his acting chops as a serious interpreter of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen, it was a mind-bender to inhabit an iconic status so far outside his sense of self.
“I was the representative of an underrepresented character who looked and talked like me but was not really me,” Mandvi wrote of his Senior Muslim Correspondent role. “He was the creation and the handiwork of myself and many smart, funny people: the jihadist of irony.”
This is the wonderful burden of the cultural barrier-breaker: having to walk the fine line between portraying characters honestly while not creating new stereotypes, sacrificing an inner core of truth or fumbling with the impossibility of trying to speak for a large and diverse population of people.
But we all benefit when the previously exotic becomes normal and mainstream, even fictitiously. You need only to look at how Hollywood has responded to “Jane the Virgin,” a TV show about a religious Latina who accidentally gets artificially inseminated, and “Transparent,” a TV show about a family headed by a transgender parent, to see how powerful new archetypes can be.
Breaking these barriers and doing them justice take guts and talent. Mandvi does so with dignity and humor that make the book both thought-provoking and fun.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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