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Hello and welcome to Episode 14 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in after a much-needed break.
In today’s episode, I want to first talk about a few changes to the podcast format based on listener feedback. Then, we’ll have an interview with Sarah Thankam Mathews, one of the editors and founding team members of the upcoming, very exciting South Asian Avant-Garde or SAAG Anthology. That’s in our #DesiLitBiz segment. We’ll also hear from Sameer Pandya reading from his excellent new novel, Members Only, in the #DesiReads segment.
Let’s talk about the upcoming changes first.
1) We’re moving from a weekly to a bi-weekly format. So I plan to put out each episode on the 15th and the 30th of each month. Or, roughly, thereabouts. The main reason for this is to allow listeners time to catch up with episodes. And to allow me time to work with more writers to feature.
2) Instead of me curating a roundup of notable stories, essays, poems, etc., I’m going to be asking other writers to share their top THREE recent favorite such reads in a new segment that we’re going to call #DesiBoost. This way, you’re all getting a variety of reading recommendations and not just my biases and preferences. That said, I will continue to tweet out links to other desi writers’ works throughout the week on my personal Twitter handle so you can certainly find more there if you want. And you can find me on Twitter @jennybhatt.
3) The #DesiBooksGiveaway segment is going on hiatus until I can figure out a more effective way to do this with writers. I might run this on a monthly basis in the future instead of weekly so that listeners have enough time to enter the giveaway as well. So stay tuned for that.
4) Many listeners have asked to include more genres in the Notable Books segment and we’ll get there down the road. But, right now, as I am not able to pay anyone to work on the podcast on a regular basis, I’m focusing on the genres that I can speak knowledgeably about. So this is not about exclusion so much as it is about my own confidence in speaking about genres that I don’t necessarily read. So please bear with me. We will get other people on to speak to those other genres down the road.
5) And, lastly, for now, I truly appreciate getting emails with suggestions on how to improve the podcast. But please know that this does take a fair amount of my time and there’s no compensation. So I cannot implement all of what you might like right away. But I will always be in a mode of continuous improvement. So please bear with me as I aim to make this a sustainable, long-term platform for showcasing desi writers from around the world. And continue sending in those suggestions, please.
NOTABLE NEW BOOKS FOR AUGUST
You can find all the titles mentioned in this “New Books” segment at bookshop.org, which benefits local, independent booksellers directly. Go to bookshop.org/lists/desi-books-2020. This is a US-based site so my apologies to non-US listeners. But you can still see the list of all the books that have come out in 2020 and been mentioned on the podcast.
1) Shruti Swamy’s A House Is a Body. This is a debut collection of short stories and focuses, mostly, on the interior lives of their protagonists in both real and surreal situations and settings. The most striking thing to me about Swamy’s prose is her artful language. I interviewed her for Electric Literature and that should be out later this month. So I will share that as soon as it is.
2) Saumya Dave’s Well-behaved Indian Women is a debut novel that came out in July when the podcast was on hiatus so I’m mentioning it now. It’s a mother-daughter story about three generations of women working to define themselves as they pursue their dreams.
3) Perumal Murugan’s Rising Heat was also published in July. It’s Murugan’s first novel but only available in translation by Janani Kannan now. Classic Murugan themes, of course, with a focus on the human cost of urbanization.
4) Where Things Touch: A Meditation on Beauty by Bahar Orang, a desi Canadian doctor and this is her debut non-fiction now out in the US. Drawing on her clinical experiences, she explores beauty through questions about intimacy, queerness, home, memory, love, and other aspects of human experience.
5) Girl Made of Gold by Gitanjali Kolanad is about the lives of devadasis in 1920s India. Fascinatingly told as a kind of mystery thriller. I’m looking forward to reading this one.
6) Sugar, Smoke, Song by Reema Rajbanshi is a collection of ten linked stories set in the Bronx, California, India, and Brazil. It’s told through semi-experimental play with nonlinear plots, plural narrators, and hybrid prose. The stories embody the experiences of Asian American women carrying histories both unseen and cyclically lived.
7) The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die is a Bengali novel by Shirsendu Chattopadhyay and translated by the prolific Arunava Sinha. It’s out in the US now though it was out in India three years or so ago. It’s a hilarious novel about three generations of Mitra women who are surprising at every turn and defy all expectations.
8) Last one. Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please is a short story collection, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. It was out at the end of July in the US. These are lovely slice-of-life stories set in Mumbai, my hometown, except I will always call it Bombay. You can read two of these stories online at Literary Hub and Words Without Borders.
This is a new segment. As I mentioned at the top of this episode, instead of a list of notable stories, essays, poems, interviews, etc., curated by just me, I’m going to invite other writers to recommend their favorite and recent three reads in these forms. For this episode, I’ll go ahead and list my three #DesiBoosts to kick it off.
This month, I’ve been thinking a lot about language as I’ve been wrapping up my own upcoming literary translation book. So there have been three essays on this theme of language that I keep mulling over and returning to.
1) Hasanthika Sirisena’s graphic essay at Electric Literature is about losing her mother tongue of Sinhala and how she’s dealing with it. It’s rendered so beautifully and thoughtfully, you really should read it. Full disclosure: she’s also my editor for my upcoming short story collection. But she’s a multi-talented writer across forms and deserves a lot more attention. Also, let me give you writers looking to publish books a little tip: always pick an editor who’s also a fearless writer because that will inspire you to do your best too. There’s a lot you can tell about an editor by looking at their own writing. And Hasanthika Sirisena has never pulled back her punches. So, for me, it was just such an honor to work with her on my book.
2) Over at Bitch Media, Aditi Natasha Kini wrote an essay about how she’s forgetting the ancient language of Konkani, which was her first language. The artwork by Manuja Waldia is beautiful too. This essay made me think about many things. About how I fell back in love with my mother tongue, Gujarati, and how I immersed myself in it with books from my mother’s personal library after she passed away. It also reminded me of when I first sampled Konkani food during childhood roadtrips from Bombay to Goa. So it’s a beautiful essay and, if you’ve spent any time in India on that part of the western coast, you’ll enjoy it too.
3) And staying with the theme of language, this recent essay by Mugdha Singh at Femoai is about how we need new words for the many emotions and moods that this pandemic has created for all of us. I’ve reread this multiple times since it came out because of how it illustrates both the beauty and the limits of language in our lives.
So there’s my three #DesiBoosts for this week’s episode. The next one will have another writer sharing theirs. Stay tuned.
#DESILITBIZ with Sarah Thankam Mathews of SAAG Anthology
The South Asian Avant-Garde, or SAAG, is a dissident Literary Anthology. They’re a collective of South Asian writers, editors, intellectuals, organizers, translators, playwrights, journalists, visual artists, and designers who share a deep political commitment to radical art that challenges unequal status quos. What that means is that they’re focusing on revolutionary and avant-garde traditions of art that have repeatedly been excised from the histories of South Asia. Here’s more from their website: “We aspire to build on these older radicalisms in creating art, literature, and projects of imagination needed in the present political moment. In contrast to the siloed worlds of literary magazines, art exhibits or academic journals, SAAG seeks to imagine—through experimentalism in form, function, and craft—radical collaboration across genres and modes; to feature work that opens up and digs into political fault lines rather than rehearsing already-established progressive certainties, to find strange new ways of telling stories corresponding to better worlds that are yet to exist.”
On a personal note, I’ve been excited about this anthology since episode 4, when we had Kamil Ahsan on and dropped broad hints about it. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that, after I recorded this episode, they asked to interview me about my upcoming book. So there is a mutual give-and-take here but that should not take anything away from the amazing work this collective is pulling together. Listen to Sarah Thankam Mathews, one of the editors and founding members of SAAG Anthology, talk about the need to build our own “house” that isn’t centered on the white gaze.
Here’s a bit about Sarah: she grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at seventeen. She’s a recent Iowa Writers Workshop graduate and currently a fellow at the Asian American Writers Workshop and an editor at South-Asian Avant-Garde, a dissident literary anthology. Her writing is published or forthcoming in places including AGNI, the Kenyon Review, and Best American Short Stories 2020.
And now here’s our conversation.
#DESIREADS with Sameer Pandya
Members Only, is Sameer Pandya’s second book and first novel. It came out in July 2020. Raj Bhatt, the main character, is often unsure of where he belongs. Having moved to America from Bombay as a child, he knew few Indian kids. Now middle-aged, he lives mostly happily in California, with a job at a university. Still, his white wife seems to fit in better than he does at times, especially at their tennis club, a place he’s cautiously come to love. But it’s there that, in one week, his life unravels. It begins at a meeting for potential new members: Raj thrills to find an African American couple on the list; he dreams of a more diverse club. But in an effort to connect, he makes a racist joke. The committee turns on him, no matter the years of prejudice he’s put up with. And worse still, he soon finds his job is in jeopardy after a group of students reports him as a reverse racist, thanks to his alleged “anti-Western bias.” Heartfelt, humorous, and hard-hitting, Members Only explores what membership and belonging mean, as Raj navigates the complicated space between black and white America.
Sameer Pandya is the author of the story collection The Blind Writer, which was longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award. He is also the recipient of the PEN/Civitella Fellowship. His fiction, commentary, and cultural criticism has appeared in a range of publications, including the Atlantic, Salon, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN. He teaches creative writing and South Asian and Asian American literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Members Only is his first novel.
And now, here’s Sameer Pandya reading from Members Only.
You’ve been listening to episode 14 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over.
Episode 15 will be up in a couple of weeks. Follow on Twitter @desibooks or Instagram @desi.books and tag the account if you have requests or suggestions. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The transcript will be up in the next 24 hours on the website.
Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.
DISCLOSURE NOTE: The books linked above are from Bookshop.org. There is a tiny affiliate commission payable to Desi Books if you buy a book using the link here. This helps pay toward the cost of running the podcast. Thank you.