‘Never Have I Ever’ Is Exactly What I Needed as a Yemeni Jewish Teen

I'm not Indian-American, but the Netflix show is still the first time I've felt seen by mainstream TV.

When I first caught sight of the trailer for Never Have I Ever, Netflix’s new teen sitcom, I expected a lighthearted comedy I may want to put on while cooking. What I didn’t expect was to discover my new favorite TV character, be moved to tears by almost every episode, and to feel seen in mainstream television, perhaps for the first time ever.

In high school I was obsessed with Beverly Hills 90210, where the choice of characters to relate to was limited to Brenda or Kelly (because no self-respecting teenage girl would have ever related to Donna). I chose Brenda because she was new in town and less blonde, and therefore “the other.” Andrea Zuckerman, the only somewhat diverse character in the show, was not an option, despite the fact that we were both Jewish. Perhaps it was her position as a token sidekick that made her unrelatable, or her uncomfortable-to-watch neurosis (I was angry and depressed as a teen, not neurotic). As for her Jewishness, Andrea was an American Jew, an ethnic group that didn’t suffer from a lack of representation on screen. In the eyes of a Yemeni Jewish Israeli girl, that made her almost as exotic as Kelly.

There was never a girl like me on TV. Just as she was nowhere to be found in literature. And when you grow into this reality, you don’t question it. You may spend your childhood and adolescence writing stories about white people, as I did. You might wonder whether your dream to become an author is within reach. As children rights’ advocate Marian Wright Edelman famously said, you can’t be what you don’t see.

Perhaps this was the reason I fell in love with Mindy Kaling, the creator of Never Have I Ever, when she starred in her series, The Mindy Project. Finally, a heroine who was brown, sexy, smart, and hilarious, who loved food and sex and loud patterns. Over the years I’ve grown to admire Kaling even more for her commitment to inclusivity and for changing the face of mainstream television. She’s done it with the diversely cast TV adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral (which was exactly the mindless fun I had expected Never Have I Ever to be, and while we’re on the subject, how dreamy is Cash?).

But Never Have I Ever hit even closer to home. Watching Devi Vishwakumar was like watching myself as a teen. Devi is the heroine I wish I had back then: a brown, nerdy, angry teenager who had just lost her dad (and is dying to have sex, and has too much hair on her arms). The similarities in Devi’s story and my own were striking: her close relationship with her dad, Mohan, and the immense grief she felt after he died mirrored my own (I cried every single time Sendhil Ramamurthy appeared on screen); her complicated relationship with her mom, the remaining parent who just didn’t get her. Like Devi, I wasn’t always a good friend, too blinded by grief to see my friends’ challenges. And like Devi, I had snubbed my heritage, learning to embrace it only later in life. And then, as if it wasn’t eerie enough, a friend texted to tell me they made a show about me on Netflix. “She even looks like you!” she said.

Kaling told the Los Angeles Times that she hopes Indian people will feel seen by having their culture depicted on screen. Clearly, she didn’t write this series with someone like me in mind. Of course, I know Devi isn’t me. I grew up in Israel, not the U.S. I’m Jewish Yemeni, not Indian (though the racists who’ve yelled anti-South Asians slurs at me clearly couldn’t tell the difference). And frankly, I think Devi is cooler than I ever was. And yet, I have never come that close to seeing someone like me represented in a lead role in mainstream media. Never.

The emotional impact this show had on me made me realize just how deprived I felt of representation, still. It also made me wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up at a time when women like Mindy Kaling were making television, if I had seen these kinds of characters regularly on TV, film, and in books. How would that have affected my self-esteem? The dreams I would have allowed myself to have?

When I started writing in English, in my 30s, to a North American audience, I didn’t believe anyone would find resonance in my Yemeni Jewish stories. After trying to mold my writing into the North American conventions and failing, I fell into a major case of writer’s block. A wise teacher suggested I stopped reading Canadian literature altogether and prescribed immigrant literature. I decided to spend an entire year reading only writers of color, and discovered Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Yiyun Li. Reading their work, and engaging with diverse voices and perspectives outside the dominant culture’s frame of reference, gave me hope for my own writing, made me believe there was room for my stories in the world. And indeed, I’ve since written two books, a short story collection and a memoir that put myself and others like me at the forefront of the story.

The other day I got a note from a young Algerian doctor in Toronto who thanked me for writing a book she could see herself in. The week before, a 22-year-old student from Spain emailed me to say that at times, my book felt like a mirror. A while back, a young Nigerian poet wrote to tell me he felt at home in my writing. Every time I get those emails, I am humbled and moved, often to tears. I am reminded that sometimes we may find echoes of ourselves in unexpected places. And that through writing our “little” stories — portraying our experiences of marginalization, displacement, and immigration, sharing our love and our sorrows, our exploration of language, culture, and race — we may reach an audience far beyond our immediate community.

Header Image via Netflix; background via Getty Images.

Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. She is the author of The Art of Leaving, winner of the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for memoir. Her first book, The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and was published internationally. She lives in Tel Aviv.

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