Hello and welcome to Episode 2 of DesiBooks — news and views about Desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.
If this is your first listen to this podcast, Desi includes, for our purposes here, South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives. And, of course, their globally-scattered diaspora.
In today’s episode, in addition to the literary roundup, we’ve got the writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar sharing her favorite desi books. Stay tuned because it’s a lovely, diverse selection.
WHAT DOES DESI MEAN?
One of the questions I got after the first episode was about the origin of the word “desi”. So let’s talk a bit about that. It originates from the ancient Sanskrit “desh”, which means country. The first known use of the word dates back to approximately 200 BC though some people place this even further back around 500 BC. And it was in a text written by the ancient sage, Bharath Muni, about the performing arts. It’s called Natya Shastra meaning “The Science or the Scriptures of the Performing Arts.” He’s considered the father of the Indian (India, the entire region, as it was then, not India the partitioned country now) performing art forms. He used the word in reference to regional or provincial art traditions versus those more well-known at the pan- or national level at the time. Today, the word is used in various languages and dialects across the sub-continent to refer to the people, the cultures, and the products of the subcontinent and their diaspora. There are also variations like “swades” meaning “my country” and “pardes” meaning “foreign country.”
Allow me a little digression, if you would. One of the main principles in this text, Natya Shastra, is about the essence or purpose of performance art — that’s known as “Rasa” — and how that’s not simply entertainment but to take viewers into another reality or world where they can become, through certain states of mind — known as “bhava” — more intensely aware of their own consciousness and reflect on larger questions of existence or being.
For those more familiar with classical Western literature, you’ll know of Aristotle’s Poetics as the definitive text on dramatic theory. That’s dated around 335 BC and it talks of similar things — particularly how drama and tragedy are about discovery and catharsis for viewers.
Whichever text or theory you prefer, it’s great that both discuss the aesthetics of art — whether that’s literature, music, drama, or some other form — as being more than just entertainment. Don’t you agree?
(MORE) NOTABLE NEW BOOKS FOR APRIL
Let’s start with a few more notable new books:
1) A few days ago, it would have been the musical maestro, Ravi Shankar’s, 100th birthday. Some of his students, including his daughter Anoushka Shankar, came together via video to perform one of his famous compositions, Sandhya Raag (Evening Music). You can find it on Youtube — a rousing, beautiful piece of music.
Oliver Craske has an official biography of Ravi Shankar out this month titled Indian Sun. “Ravi”, of course, means “Sun.” Craske had also worked with Shankar on his autobiography and had full access to family, friends, archives, etc. to write this book. Craske just released a 15-track Spotify playlist to go with the book. There are additional notes too. Listen and read here.
2) Deep Vellum Publishing has a lovely book out this month by Rona Jaffe award-winner, Fowzia Karimi, titled Above Us the Milky Way. It’s a debut novel about a family fleeing war and conflict in Afghanistan to emigrate to the US. Here’s the most fascinating bit about the book from its blurb: “The novel’s structure is built around the alphabet, twenty-six pieces written in the first person that sketch a through-line of memory for the lives of the five daughters, mother, and father. Ghost stories and fairytales are woven with old family photographs and medieval-style watercolor illuminations to create an origin story of loss and remembrance.” Very promising reviews from Kirkus, Foreword, Publishers Weekly, and more.
3) The award-winning travel journalist, Jini Reddy, has a travel memoir called Wanderland out in the UK this month. It will be out in the US and Canada at the end of June. We don’t get a lot of travel-related books from women writers of color and this one sounds truly terrific. Blurbed by, among others, Robert McFarlane, there are aspects of the mystical, whimsical, and folklore here. Reddy also explores identity and belonging through stories about her Canadian childhood and her Indian parents’ struggles in apartheid-era South Africa. She talks more about the book in this interview.
4) Ingrid Persaud won both the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award with the same short story, ‘The Sweet Sop’, which you can read at The Granta Magazine. Quite a feat. She also came to writing as a later-in-life career as she described in a February interview. This novel, Love After Love, is out in the UK now and will be out in the US in August this year. The title is, I believe, from that famous Derek Walcott poem. Persaud is from Trinidad and this book is filled with delicious Trinidad patois and more. Great blurbs and glowing reviews at The Guardian and Publishers Weekly already. Looking forward.
5) Pawan Dhingra, a Professor of American Studies at Amherst College, has a new book out titled Hyper Education about “Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough.” His most well-known book is about Indian-American motel owners: Life Behind the Lobby. But this one promises to be quite an eye-opener as well. There’s a premium review at LibraryJournal and, hopefully, there will be more. This isn’t just a book for parents and educators. It should be relevant for anyone interested in how the American education system is failing us in the broader contexts of racism, immigration, policy-making, culture, class, and more. Also, it specifically addresses the many incorrect, stereotypical assumptions about Asian Americans as high achievers or model minorities.
NOTABLE NEW SHORT STORIES, POEMS, ESSAYS
Here are some notable short stories, poems, and essays from literary magazines and websites. There’ve been quite a few good ones this past week.
1) Sayantani Dasgupta has a short story up at Southern Humanities Review about friends at a party and how awkward things can get when histories collide.
2) Jerry Pinto has some poems about lessons learned during the Indian lockdown over at Scroll.in.
3) Shobha Rao has a beautiful meditative essay at Literary Hub about quiet spaces and silence during this pandemic.
4) Rafia Zakaria has an essay at The Baffler about her twin brother, a doctor, and how they’re both coping with certain health-related challenges through the pandemic.
5) And Nimmi Gowrinathan has an essay with her co-author, Asale Angel-Ajani, at Literary Hub again about why women kill. Fascinating stuff there.
I’m sure there’s a whole lot more but these ones jumped out during my daily reading.
A quick note: if you have or come across interesting new stories, essays, or poems coming out by South Asian writers, please don’t hesitate to tag the @desibooks account on Twitter.
NOTABLE LITERARY INTERVIEWS, AWARDS, EVENTS
Now let’s get to some literary interviews, awards, and events.
1) Meena Kandasamy was interviewed by the lovely ladies at the Reading Women podcast about her novel, When I Hit You. It was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2018. She’s currently got another novel out in the UK and India titled Exquisite Cadavers and it was also longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. It will be out in the US in November 2020.
2) The 2020 Hugo Awards announced their finalists earlier this month and here are the South Asian writers who made the cut. Congratulations to all of them.
— Devi Pillai for Best Longform Editor (Tor Books)
— Nibedita Sen for Astounding Award for Best New Writer (this isn’t strictly a Hugo Award)
— Tasha Suri for Astounding Award for Best New Writer (this isn’t strictly a Hugo Award)
3) There’s a terrific interview with the prolific Bengali-to-English literary translator, Arunava Sinha at ‘The Seen and the Unseen’ podcast about the art of translation. I always learn something new from Arunava da. This is worth a listen even if you’re not a translator. And there’s a great list of books on the podcast page so thanks to Amit Verma, the host, for adding that.
4) Congratulations also to the poet, essayist, and professor, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who just won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Aimee has a book of essays called World of Wonders coming out in August. More on that soon.
5) The 2020 Best Small Fictions Anthology selections have been announced. Some notable desi writers with works included are:
9) Apoorva Mandavilli, an award-winning science journalist who writes for places like the New York Times and The Atlantic and Scientific American, will be doing an online reading on April 15th to support the indie bookstore, Green Apple Books.
10) And, finally, if you love bookstores, you’ll love this. Aakanksha Gaur has a new app called ‘Save Your Bookstore’, which lists more than 600 bookstores in 137 cities across eight countries. People can go check up on their local bookstores and see different ways to support them. Pretty neat given the difficulties bookstores are going through during these times.
#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH CHAYA BHUVANESWAR
Now we get to the segment of the podcast that I’m excited about. We’ve got Chaya Bhuvaneswar talking to us about her favorite desi books. We plan to make this a regular feature of the podcast moving forward. So, fingers crossed, we’ll get more such writers coming on to share their favorite desi books too.
A bit of an introduction to Chaya if you don’t already know her.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician, writer, and PEN American award finalist for her debut short story collection, White Dancing Elephants. Her prose has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Millions, Joyland, Large-Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, Jellyfish Review, aaduna, and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published at venues like Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity, and elsewhere. Her work was recently selected for inclusion in the Best Small Fictions anthology. Her writing juxtaposes Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color.
Here’s Chaya talking about her favorite desi books and why they matter to her as a reader and a writer. Take it away, Chaya.
Desi books recommended by Chaya Bhuvaneswar (full audio transcription of this segment will be added shortly):
3.1) The Rumi Prescription by Melody Moezzi
5.1) The Inner Courtyard, edited by Lakshmi Holmström
Honorable Mention: No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
LITERARY RANT OR RAVE
No big rant or rave from me this week though I did push back against something on Twitter, which I’ll link here for your reading pleasure. It was meant as a fun little thing on social media by a venue I read daily and respect for the work they do across the literary world. Still, it was disappointing to see their cultural biases revealed quite so plainly.
You’ve been listening to episode 2 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over.
More soon in Episode 3. Tune in next weekend. Don’t forget to follow on Twitter @desibooks and tag the account if you have requests or suggestions. Email at email@example.com.
Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.
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DISCLOSURE NOTE: The books linked above are from Bookshop.org. There is a tiny affiliate commission payable to Desi Books if you buy the book using that link. This helps pay toward the cost of running the podcast. Thank you.