#DesiLitBiz: Sarina Prabasi on how activism and writing go together; #DesiBoost: Haider Shahbaz on his favorite desi works

Desi Books Ep 20 w/ Sarina Prabasi & Haider Shahbaz Desi Books

(available at Anchor.fm, Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Overcast)

Hello and welcome to Episode 20 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

In today’s episode, we have Sarina Prabasi in our #DesiLitBiz segment. She’s an activist, coffeeshop founder, and writer of the memoir: The Coffeehouse Resistance: Bringing Hope in Desperate Times. We also have the literary translator, Haider Shahbaz, sharing some important works from Lahore, Pakistan in the #DesiBoost segment. Haider’s latest translation is a novel by Mirza Athar Baig, titled Hassan’s State of Affairs.

I’d like to also share a bit about a collaboration project between the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative and Desi Books. Throughout the month of December, I will be sharing brief interviews with South Asian literary translators about one of their translated works. I’ll include the links in the episode transcript on the website. And, if you’re connected on Twitter or Instagram, details will be shared there daily too. In the introductory post on December 1, I talked about the need to spotlight South Asian literature in translation. Please feel free to share or recommend your own favorites as well and tag the DesiBooks social media accounts. My hope is that, in 2021, we can invite some of these translators for a virtual Desi Books in Translation book club, which I’ve mentioned before. So please join in. These books aren’t simply stories. They’re historical, cultural, and literary artifacts. And, if we’re open to it, each one of them can reveal to us new wisdom about our world and, indeed, our own selves.

Now please sit back and enjoy the usual episode segments.



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.

I know I don’t always catch all new books by writers of South Asian origin. So, if you’ve got a new book coming out, please tag the Desi Books account on Twitter or Instagram to let me know. You can also send an email to hellodesibooks@gmail.com. The social media links will also be in the transcript and they’re always on the website.

Also, I’m going to refer to a few books today that I missed in earlier episodes.

1) Hands for Language by Uma Menon came out in August. It’s a poetry collection that takes readers on a journey through the eyes of a teenage girl of color living in America. It explores themes of transnationalism, migration, language, family, and culture and expands the dialogue around literary representation.

2) A Terrible Thing by Gita Ralleigh was out in October. It’s a short collection about goddesses, their elemental power, their vulnerability. Its poems are as delicate and formidable as their protagonists, which include Draupadi and Bollywood’s Nargis, Erzulie and Oshun, Kali and Anagolay.

3) The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali came out in October. Titled for the influential singer left almost voiceless by a terrible syndrome, these poems bring sweet melodies and rhythms as the voices blend and become multitudinous. There’s an honoring of not only survival, but of persistence, as this part research-based, pensive collection contemplates what it takes to move forward when the unimaginable holds you back.

4) The Girl and the Goddess: Stories and Poems of Divine Wisdom by Nikita Gill is a September book. It’s a novel in verse exploring Hindu mythology and legend. It’s also an intimate coming-of-age story told in linked poems

5) Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani came out in October. It’s a memoir about an immigrant family’s American Dream, the justice system that took it away, and the daughter who fought to get it back, from NPR correspondent Aarti Namdev Shahani.

6) The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches From a Precarious State by Declan Walsh was out in November. Declan Walsh is a New York Times international correspondent. This is his portrait of Pakistan over a tumultuous decade through the dramatic lives of nine fascinating individuals.

7) Enter the Navel: For the Love of Creative Nonfiction by Anjoli Roy came out in September. It’s a chapbook of creative nonfiction that includes, among other things, Hawaiian and Hindu origin stories rooted in the navel that connect us to the divine; the role of the navel in and after human birth; a story of the author’s own teenage navel piercing; the plastic surgery that removed her mother’s navel, and more.

8) Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son by Homeira Qaderi is out in December. It’s a memoir about a mother’s unimaginable choice in the face of oppression and abuse in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. A letter to the son she was forced to leave behind. Dr. Qaderi has written several books and won awards in Afghanistan and Iran. This is her first book in English.

9) A Will to Kill by R V Raman is out in December. An Agatha Christie-style murder and crime mystery set in modern-day India and the first of a series featuring private investigator, Harith Athreya. It’s got everything: a haunted manor, estranged relatives, a dying patriarch, and more.

10) The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain is a February novel that came out in the UK and was shortlisted for the 2020 Costa First Novel Award. It’s a multi-generational story of a British Muslim family. And the back blurb describes it as “full of love, laughter, and resilience as well as all the faults, mistakes, and stubborn loyalties which make us human.”

11) Zigzags by Kamala Puligandla came out in October. A debut novel that about parties, friendships, finding yourself, writing, and relationships.

12) Take It Back by Kia Abdullah comes out in December. It’s a courtroom thriller focusing on the British Muslim community. And it deals with themes of family, belonging, immigration, sexual crimes, and more.



Sarina Prabasi has lived the life of a global nomad and is a relatively new American. She was born in the Netherlands to Nepali parents and raised in India, China, and Nepal. She spent her formative years in the United States and Ethiopia. Her professional career as a leader in international development—working on global health, education, water, and sanitation—spans over 25 years. In 2011, she moved from Addis Ababa to New York City and started Buunni Coffee with her husband. Their small business soon became a hub for community conversation and action, especially after the 2016 presidential elections. Her father, a retired UN official, was also on the podcast on Episode 17 in the #DesiBoost segment.

In her memoir, The Coffeehouse Resistance: Bringing Hope in Desperate Times, Sarina writes about her personal journey across the globe, starting her coffee shop, and her activism for a fairer, more equitable society. This is a beautifully-written memoir that came out in 2019 and deserves more attention. In a year when independent, community-based businesses like hers are dealing with new kinds of challenges, I spoke with Sarina about her writing, publishing a debut book later in life, starting her business with her husband, her activism work, and what happens next.

On a personal note, let me just say how much this book enriched my own worldview about many aspects. Reading it during this pandemic year made me think deeper about my own literary activism, which is definitely not at the level of what Sarina is doing politically. And her meditations on coffee rituals and the role of coffeehouses in our communities for centuries are profound. This is a lot more than an immigrant memoir about self and personal identity. This is about how we can make change happen from right where we sit with the power of our communities, how we can put some positive energy out in the world versus taking negative energy from it, and how we can assimilate into other cultures while still upholding and respecting our own.

Toward the end of the recording, we had a bit of a broadband connection issue, I think, so if it sounds like we talked over each other a couple of times, we didn’t really. There’s some weird time lag thing sometimes with the podcast app so my apologies for that.

Now, here’s Sarina Prabasi.





Haider Shahbaz studied History at Yale University and Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is currently doing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at UCLA. He was awarded a Charles Pick Fellowship in 2016. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs (HarperCollins India, 2019). His work has appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Brooklyn Rail, The Caravan, and Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan. Recently, he won the 2020 Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation for his translation of ‘The Sea’, a short story by Khalida Hussain.

Here’s a bit about the book that Shahbaz has translated: Mirza Athar Baig is an important contemporary Urdu writer, who is known for his avant-garde writing on postcolonial themes. Hassan’s State of Affairs—his first book to be translated into English—is a surreal ride through Pakistan. It follows an accountant, Hassan, and a group of filmmakers, Masquerade Productions, who are working on Pakistan’s first surrealist film, titled “This Film Cannot Be Made”. As the film’s production runs into hurdles, escalating from the comic to the horrific, the text itself explodes into multiple storylines, genres, and characters, and bends language and form. And the result is an entirely new kind of novel.

Now please enjoy the three very interesting works that Haider Shahbaz is boosting in this segment. The links will be in the transcript.




2) Marium Naveed, ‘Ma Puts Oil In My Hair‘.

3) Behenchara Magazine Interview: Sarah Suhail


You’ve been listening to episode 20 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over.

Episode 21 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 hellodesibooks@gmail.com.

The transcript will be up in a few days on the website http://desibooks.co.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.


DISCLOSURE NOTE: The books linked above are from Bookshop.org or, Amazon. There is a really tiny affiliate commission payable to Desi Books if you buy a book using the links here. This helps pay a really tiny bit toward the overall cost of running the podcast. Thank you.

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