#DesiBooksNews: A poetry reading by Raena Shirali, and . . . where’s our #SlumdogMillionaireDiscourse?

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Dear Reader,

In last week’s newsletter, I had shared our January #DesiBooksReco list with close to twenty books. Well, we’re just over thirty now with some new additions. Take a look. Also, note that we’ve added some genre tags so you can filter more easily for your reading preferences. We’ll keep improving this interface to make it more user-friendly each month. At the end of the year, we’ll do an annual roundup. And we might even do a special spotlight on some of the most notable books. We’ll give it some careful thought, however, as we don’t want to just replicate the manipulative, biased approaches of social media algorithms.

Raena Shirali’s poetry collection, summonings, was out in late 2022. Indebted to the docupoetics tradition, these poems investigate the ongoing practice of witch (“daayan”) hunting in India.

summonings is a comment on power and patriarchy, on authorial privilege and the shifting role of witness, and, ultimately, on an ethical poetics, grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other. Have a listen to Raena and read the transcript of some of the excerpts here.

If you enjoyed Raena’s poems, you might also like these previous poetry features:

Reading through this collection and how carefully Shirali navigated her way through writing about and representing the subaltern voice in her work reminded me of some of our writers who don’t necessarily give this quite as much thought at all. As I said in my introduction to this latest podcast episode, some writers do talk the talk about empathy while “writing the other.” Yet, to me, their writing about the subaltern comes off as exploitative (especially when we see how those books are then marketed to us readers.) Let’s call this the #SlumdogMillionaireDiscourse that we so need to have about those books. Quite frankly, they’re our American Dirt (do you recall some of that ruckus in 2020?) We’re just not talking about some of our own problematic books in the same way yet. At least not via thoughtful, considered essay-length critiques. And it’s along the lines of, but not quite the same thing as, #MangoDiscourse, which I wrote about in 2021.

I don’t have the bandwidth right now to write about this myself but I really wish someone would. It’s not new. I mean, this whole exploration of the “postcolonial exotic” has been happening for decades in academia. See, for example, Graham Duggan’s book of that title from 2001, where he wrote about “Indo-chic” and certain kinds of books as “postcolonial products (that) are marketed and domesticated for Western consumption.” But, oh well. Western critics love such books. They rave about them in New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR. And tens of thousands of copies get sold on the strength of those reviews . . . all of which then continues to reinforce the usual biases and prejudices about our cultures and communities.

Alright. Let me end on a positive note. Here’s Geetanjali Shree’s speech for the inaugural edition of the MR Narayana Kurup Memorial Annual Lecture at Government College, Madappally, Kerala, in December. So many terrific bits there. She talked about how literature is about freedom and how nothing is so sacrosanct that writers cannot write about it. But it has to be about hope, humanity, and opening up matters in new, interesting ways.

The point is, in life and in art and literature, there is nothing sacrosanct in such a way that you can’t touch it. You can play with these things. Like I said, literature and art are about binding people, creating hope and humanity, bringing them together with love, not about dividing and creating hostilities. […] about opening up matters philosophically or even just having fun as one does with a loved one.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

Jenny Bhatt

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