Title: Enter Title Here
Author: Rahul Kanakia
Genre: Realistic, Contemporary, Young Adult
Rating: ★★★★★ || 5 stars
warning: drug use, suicide ideations, overdosing
When was the last time you read a novel with a truly detestable heroine? When was the last time you had to spend three hundred fifty pages with a horrid person? When was the last time you enjoyed it?
Reshma Kapoor is the valedictorian at her selective, Silicon Valley high school. She’s written columns for the Huffington Post, and she has an agent interested in a novel she hasn’t written yet. She’s a shoo-in for Stanford, but it isn’t enough. She’s only one of 30,000 valedictorians competing for less than 6,000 spots at Stanford, so she can’t be simply good. She could never have settled for simply good. What Reshma needs, what is almost a compulsion for her, is to have confirmation that she is better than everyone else. And she will go to almost any length to be the best.
And I do mean any lengths; the description of the novel kind of undersold this bit. Reshma’s ruthlessness and her single-minded competitiveness are intensely reminiscent of my own high school, which has made the news more than once for its academic rigour and its overworked students.
Writing about Asian Americans and college applications is always fraught territory. It feels like every once in a few months, some new article will pop up, if not outlining the horrors of “mass produced” Asian high school grads (note: this is racist), then outlining the poor impressionable youths who are destroyed by their parents’ single minded obsession on feeding them to Ivies (note: this is racist). If (often white) writers are not hand-wringing about Asians gaming the system (note: this is racist), then white college officials are changing the standards to suit their increasingly nebulous and hard-to-define qualifications for entry (note: do I need to say it?). And if not that, then people like Amy Chua are codifying the narrative by publishing pieces about the relative virtues of “Asian parenting” and “tiger mothers,” as if all Asians parent the same way, or have the same expectations of their children. Or they are solidifying the model minority myth, displacing oppression upon Black and Latinx bodies. It’s a tough landscape out there, okay?
A Stanford and Johns Hopkins grad, Rahul Kanakia seems like one of the winners of the game, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t write about it with a critical eye. Enter Title Here is one of those rare pieces of writing that does not sacrifice nuance to make some larger point about how academic success is not the only success. The college admittance process is a racist one, there is no doubt about that, and though Kanakia spends most of his time writing about this from a particular, upper middle class immigrant South Asian perspective (as opposed to, for example, a working class refugee one, or even a Black or Latinx one), the way he talks about this is widely applicable.
Learning how to navigate this is a minefield. It certainly was for myself and my friends when we were applying for colleges. I remember endless conversations about SAT scores needing to be at least 150 points higher than our peers’, remember strategising about which APs to take to have the best possible GPA, and, at least for my set of Asian friends, packaging and marketing ourselves as Alternative Asians––not your typical math-and-science nerds, but Artistes, English and History and Fine Art troves of hard work and diligence, only see how different we are from every other Asian who applies to your school. See how we’re not the same. See how you should take me and not her, because I am better at playing your game, better at interviewing, better at laughing at your jokes and making you laugh at mine.
In such a context, it was so easy for me to see how Reshma got to be the person she became before, during, and after the course of this novel. I did a quick scan of Goodreads and a lot of the negative reviews were complaining about how conniving Reshma is, how narcissistic and self-serving, how selfish and unkind, and none of these are untruths, but they aren’t accurate until you understand that this, too, becomes a form of survival, if a self-destructive one, and how it destructs.
In the course of this novel, Resh goes down a rabbit-hole made up of equal parts self-loathing and narcissism, of delusion and clearsightedness. Her teachers are racist, her school system biased against her, but she herself doesn’t make healthy decisions in light of this. She uses people, her self-worth is tied up in external validation and the desire to feel better than everyone around her, and it becomes a kind of ruthlessness that alienates everyone around her. She’s not an easy person to like, even toward the end of the novel, yet she’s extraordinarily easy to empathise with, even when she’s doing fucked up shit. But somehow, you’re still rooting for her?
Magic, really. This book is magic. It was so well done.
I think I came into this book expecting one of those Standard Narratives where Ah The Antiheroine Comes Out the Other End of the Book Having Learned a Valuable Lesson in How to Treat Others but really, guys, if you put junk into your mouth it’s rarely a lump of gold that comes out the other end.
Reshma is, in some fundamental way, still the same person she was at the beginning of the book. She’s not nice or compliant the way we expect our YA protagonists to be. But she has more perspective, her priorities are different, and she’s working on it, which is the most you can ask of anybody at any given point.
I did have concerns with some of the ways mental health in this novel was treated, particularly since it’s so underreported in Asian communities. Reshma’s mother is someone who does actually send her daughter to therapy, but the therapy sessions seem neither to be useful nor on-topic, while Reshma’s mental health benefited a sum total of zero from them, and her self-worth issues spiralled out of control to the point where she was having suicidal ideations, which were never something that was addressed at length? Yet Reshma claims in the end that her therapist “cured” her (her words).
I was unconvinced that her mental health issues stemmed from her academics, to be honest. I was more convinced that her academic issues stemmed in large part from her self-perception and mental health. Certainly academic pressure exacerbated it, but I don’t really buy that in the absence of academic pressure, Reshma’s own self-hatred, her sense of self-worth would fix themselves. The ending itself felt quite rushed though, so perhaps it was felt that this was one of those things that could get lost in the shuffle, but I feel like it played a big enough role in the unfolding of the narrative that it troubled me.
To that end, the conclusion of the novel felt like a major break from the intensity of the rest of the novel. This is largely a reflection of Reshma’s changed status, yet I felt there was a way to bridge the gap without it seeming quite so abrupt as a result. Yet this novel has so many things going for it, and it was such a strong, compelling read that I feel like five stars is honestly not enough.
In some ways, this is a messy book. Not because there was no sense of narrative organisation, but because it’s often difficult to navigate this book, to parse its rights and wrongs. Reshma is an extremely difficult protagonist to like––her relationship with her parents, her peers, her boyfriend, and even the people she wants to call her friends is so fraught––but it’s hard also not to sympathise with her loneliness, her stress, and her desire to special, to be the best.
I really recommend this novel. If at times it takes you to places you’re not necessarily comfortable going, it makes the journey worthwhile. It takes a while to get warmed up to Reshma and her blunt prose, but once you’re invested, it’s hard to look away. Definitely pick this one up at the library or the bookstore or from your favourite etailer.