#DesiLitBiz: Kamil Ahsan on editing the Desi Road Trips Issue of Barrelhouse Magazine

desi books episode 4 kamil ahsan

Desi Books Ep 4 w/ Kamil Ahsan 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 4 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 usual roundup of new notable desi books, short stories, poems, essays, interviews, awards, and more, we have Kamil Ahsan joining us for a conversation about the 2019 desi issue of Barrelhouse Magazine, which he edited. This conversation is part of a new monthly segment called “Desi Lit Biz” where we’ll discuss business and behind-the-scenes publishing aspects of desi literature with writers and industry folks. So settle in for a listen. The full transcript with all the links will be up within 24 hours as well.


Before we get into episode 4, here’s a bit of good news. Mid-Day, a national publication in India, covered this podcast last week. I’ll link to the feature in the transcript. It was a pleasant surprise and I don’t even know how the journalist, Dalreen Ramos, discovered the podcast. But I’m very grateful that she reached out and wrote such a lovely piece. When you’re doing unpaid work that takes a lot of time and effort, every bit of validation helps, right? So thank you so much, Dalreen, if you’re listening.



I keep discovering more new books out this month from desi writers, which is lovely. All the new titles mentioned in this “New Books” segment are now in a handy-dandy list online at bookshops.org. This is US-based so my apologies to non-US listeners but I’m sure you can find the books wherever you shop or borrow from locally. For US listeners, this benefits your local booksellers so please buy from this site if possible.

1) Vivek Shraya has a novel out called The Subtweet about what happens to the friendship of two women due to a tweet. Shraya also features the Toronto South Asian music industry in this book. Jeevika Verma has a review at NPR that’s worth reading especially if you don’t know about the groundbreaking work Shraya has been doing for trans artists and writers of color.

2) Rani Shah has a book of self-help out called Wisdom From a Humble Jellyfish — self-care lessons based on the behaviors of animals and plants.Shah is the founder of the satire website, Fuss Class News. You should check it out. Publishers Weekly has a nice review.

3) Ranjit Hoskote has a book of poems out in the UK and India titled The Atlas of Lost Beliefs. I’ll link to the publisher’s page as I can’t find reviews just yet. It’s also a Poetry Book Society summer selection in the UK.

4) Dilruba Ahmed has a new book of poems called Bring Now the Angels. The poems run the gamut from corporate jargon to ancient ghazals. I couldn’t find a review so I’ll link you to the publisher’s page for more details.

5) Samit Basu has a near-future anti-dystopian novel called Chosen Spirits out. If you don’t know his work, please check out his previous books too. He’s well-respected globally as one of the South Asian pioneers of the science fiction and fantasy genres. I couldn’t find a review online just yet but here’s the publisher’s book trailer.

6) Shahnaz Ahsan has a book out in the UK called Hashim and Family. It’s about Bangladeshi immigrants in the UK. The story begins from when the country was still East Pakistan. Ahsan wrote an essay at Burnt Roti about the genesis of this novel.

Again, don’t forget to check out Episodes 1 through 3 for other notable new books out this month.



Here are some new notable poems and essays from literary magazines and websites. I know I’m not getting them all so, if you know of new stories, poems, or essays published online by South Asian writers, please share them by tagging the @desibooks twitter account. Thank you.

1) Aimee Nezhukumatathil has a piece up at The Rumpus in honor of National Poetry Month. It’s a prose poem titled ‘School Supplies’.

2) Hanif Kureshi has an essay up at The Guardian about why and how he wrote The Buddha of Suburbia. He writes, “If people were not writing books about people like me, I’d write one myself, spitting out all the painful things, rudely, lightly.” Ain’t that the truth?

3) Shahidha Bari has an essay at Lit Hub — an excerpt from her non-fiction book Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes — about the pleasures and politics of our sartorial choices.

4) Rani Neutill has a personal essay at Al Jazeera about her mother’s many pilgrimages and what they taught her about wealth, race, and religion.

5) Namit Arora has a part-personal and part-reportage essay at The Baffler about how minorities are coping during this time in India.

6) Priyanka Mattoo has a different kind of pandemic-related personal essay at the New York Times: ‘Criticism Is My Love Language’.

7) Aria Aber has a video essay at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop (AAWW) as part of their At Home series talking about what she’s reading and which support organizations she’s currently backing.

8) There’s a historical essay at The Better India by Karthik Venkatesh about an unsung behind-the-scenes hero of the South Asian publishing world. Munshi Nawal Kishore was among a handful of people who commercialized printing in India during the late-19th century and brought books to a wider reading public. Fascinating story.

9) Sumita Chakraborty has an essay up at the Poetry Foundation blog about how she’s inspired or moved by The Shape of Things.



1) There’s a profile of Romesh Gunesekara at Dawn.com. His latest novel, Suncatcher, has been shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize in the UK as I’d mentioned in last week’s episode.

2) Arundhati Roy talked with Imani Perry in a live online event. You can watch the Youtube video at the Haymarket Books channel.

3) Sandeep Ray talks with Elaine Chiew at the Asian Books Blog about his 2019 novel, A Flutter in the Colony.

4) There’s an interview with Rishi Reddi at Grub Street. She has a novel out this month called Passage West as I mentioned last week.

5) Arvin Ram, a bookseller and writer, has an interview at a podcast called Crested Butte Is Home. It’s about his bookstore and the writing craft.

6) The Commonwealth Writers Organization has announced their 2020 Short Story Prize shortlist. You can read excerpts and writer bios at the link.

7) The JCB Prize, one of the biggest literary awards in South Asia, has announced their 2020 jury.

8) In the US, The Big Other has announced their 2019 Fiction Award finalists. Farooq Ahmed is on this shortlist with his novel, Kansastan.

9) This isn’t exactly an award but certainly a nice bit of validation. The Poetry Book Society in the UK has updated their 2020 summer selections with April, May, June books. And they’ve added Bhanu Kapil’s May book, How to Wash a Heart, and Ranjit Hoskote’s April book, The Atlas of Lost Beliefs.



This is an infrequent segment with calls for information or submissions on topics related to South Asia.

1) The Modern Language Association has a call for an anthology of essays addressing how anglophone South Asian diasporic literature is taught in universities across the world.

2) Rejection-Letter.com would love to see submissions from desi writers, especially non-fiction. More details on their submission page.

3) There’s a new online literary festival in the works called ‘Outside the Boxes’. It’s being helmed by Dr. Pragya Agarwal from the UK but will be global. The dates are May 17-21. More details at this twitter link. Agarwal has a book out this month about unconscious cognitive biases in the UK, Sway, which I’d mentioned in Episode 1.


Now we come to the Desi Lit Biz segment. We’ll do this once a month — talking about the business and behind-the-scenes aspects of publishing desi literature with writers and industry folks.

In 2019, the US literary magazine, Barrelhouse, published a one-time and one-of-a-kind issue titled ‘Desi Road Trips’. It featured 15 short stories by desi writers and artists. I wanted to learn more from the editor, Kamil Ahsan at the time, about the whys and wherefores of its conception and journey. Kamil and I had a fun conversation, which also dipped into a couple of long-running controversies about desi literature and why we need more such collaborative works. Kamil dropped some broad hints about some new related work too.

A quick note up front: we had a slight technical glitch a handful of times with this recording. A time lag issue caused by different connection speeds makes it sound like we were talking over each other a little bit, which we weren’t. Though a fair bit of it is now fixed, I apologize if it bothers and will ensure it doesn’t happen again. The podcast is evolving and I’m grateful for your patience as I learn the ropes here.

A quick introduction to Kamil Ahsan: He’s currently a doctoral student in history at Yale. He has a prior doctorate in biology from the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in The Nation, NPR, LA Review of Books, and The Baffler, among others.



Guest: Kamil Ahsan

Essays, stories, articles mentioned during the conversation:

(the audio transcription of this conversation will be added shortly.)


You’ve been listening to episode 4 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over.

Tune in next week for Episode 5. Follow on Twitter @desibooks and tag the account if you have requests or suggestions. Email at hellodesibooks@gmail.com.

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.

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