***UPDATED ON TUESDAYS***
These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of October 2022.
For a more complete list in the US, go to the Desi Books Bookshop (US.) For a UK list, go to the Desi Books Bookshop (UK.) Currently, there isn’t a single location to list books published within South Asia although several are included below. Note: The descriptions are mostly from publisher-provided text.
Science, politics, social change, food, disability, illness, war, and more. This month’s nonfiction covers a wide range of topics, genres, and forms from emerging and established writers alike. What they all have in common is their deep passion for their subject matter.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human is an exploration of medicine and our radical new ability to manipulate cells. Rich with Mukherjee’s revelatory and exhilarating stories of scientists, doctors, and patients whose lives may be saved by their work, The Song of the Cell is the third book in this extraordinary writer’s exploration of what it means to be human. Mukherjee begins this magnificent story in the late 1600s, when a distinguished English polymath, Robert Hooke, and an eccentric Dutch cloth merchant, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, looked down their handmade microscopes. What they saw introduced a radical concept that swept through biology and medicine, touching virtually every aspect of the two sciences, and altering both forever. It was the fact that complex living organisms are assemblages of tiny, self-contained, self-regulating units. Our organs, our physiology, our selves—hearts, blood, brains—are built from these compartments. Hooke christened them “cells“. The discovery of cells—and the reframing of the human body as a cellular ecosystem—announced the birth of a new kind of medicine based on the therapeutic manipulations of cells. A hip fracture, a cardiac arrest, Alzheimer’s dementia, AIDS, pneumonia, lung cancer, kidney failure, arthritis, COVID pneumonia—all could be reconceived as the results of cells, or systems of cells, functioning abnormally. And all could be perceived as loci of cellular therapies. In The Song of the Cell, Mukherjee tells the story of how scientists discovered cells, began to understand them, and are now using that knowledge to create new humans.
Kavita Das’ Craft and Conscience: How to Write about Social Issues is the first major book for writers to engage more effectively with complex socio-political issues—a critical first step in creating social change. Writers are witnesses and scribes to society’s conscience but writing about social issues in the twenty-first century requires a new, sharper toolkit. Craft and Conscience helps writers weave together their narrative craft, analytical and research skills, and their conscience to create prose that makes us feel the individual and collective impact of crucial issues of our time. Kavita Das guides writers to take on nuanced perspectives and embrace intentionality through a social justice lens. She challenges writers to unpack their motivations for writing about an issue and to understand that “writing, irrespective of genre or outlet, is an act of political writing,” regardless of intention. The book includes essays from a fascinating mix of authors, including James Baldwin, Alexander Chee, Kaitlyn Greenidge, George Orwell, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Gaiutra Bahadur, Jaquira Díaz, and Imani Perry. By including Das’s own perspective and those of the featured writers about motivations and approaches to writing about fraught social issues, this book both demystifies the process of engaging social issues on the page and underscores the intentionality and sensitivity that must go into the work.
Anand Giridharadas’ The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy is an insider account of activists, politicians, educators, and everyday citizens working to change minds, bridge divisions, and fight for democracy—from disinformation fighters to a leader of Black Lives Matter to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more. The lifeblood of any free society is persuasion: changing other people’s minds in order to change things. But America is suffering a crisis of faith in persuasion that is putting its democracy and the planet itself at risk. Americans increasingly write one another off instead of seeking to win one another over. Debates are framed in moralistic terms, with enemies battling the righteous. Movements for justice build barriers to entry, instead of on-ramps. Political parties focus on mobilizing the faithful rather than wooing the skeptical. And leaders who seek to forge coalitions are labeled sellouts. In The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas takes us inside these movements and battles, seeking out the dissenters who continue to champion persuasion in an age of polarization. We meet a leader of Black Lives Matter; a trailblazer in the feminist resistance to Trumpism; white parents at a seminar on raising adopted children of color; Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; a team of door knockers with an uncanny formula for changing minds on immigration; an ex-cult member turned QAnon deprogrammer; and, hovering menacingly offstage, Russian operatives clandestinely stoking Americans’ fatalism about one another. As the book’s subjects grapple with how to call out threats and injustices while calling in those who don’t agree with them but just might one day, they point a way to healing and changing, a fracturing country.
Dolly Chugh’s A More Just Future: Psychological Tools for Reckoning with Our Past and Driving Social Change is a revolutionary, evidence-based guide for developing resilience and grit to confront our whitewashed history and build a better future. The racial fault lines of our country have been revealed in stark detail as our national news cycle is flooded with stories about the past. If you are just now learning about the massacre in Tulsa, the killing of Native American children in compulsory “residential schools” designed to destroy their culture, and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, you are not alone. The seeds of today’s inequalities were sown in past events like these. The time to unlearn the whitewashed history we believed was true is now. If we close our eyes to our history, we cannot make the systemic changes needed to mend our country. Today’s challenges began centuries ago and have deepened and widened over time. To take the path to a more just future, we must not ignore the damage but see it through others’ eyes, bear witness to it, and uncover its origins. As historians share these truths, we will need psychologists to help us navigate the shame, guilt, disbelief, and resistance many of us feel. Dolly Chugh, award-winning professor of social psychology and author of the acclaimed The Person You Mean to Be, gives us the psychological tools we need to grapple with the truth of our country. Through heartrending personal histories and practical advice, Chugh invites us to dismantle the systems built by our forbearers and work toward a more just future.
Fatima Ali’s Savor: A Chef’s Hunger for More is about a young chef whose dreams were cut short, but who savors every last minute as she writes about exploring food and adventure, illness and mortality in this stunning, lyrical memoir and family story that sweeps from Pakistan to New York City and beyond. Fatima Ali won the hearts of viewers as the Fan Favorite of Bravo’s Top Chef in season fifteen. Twenty-nine years old, she was a dynamic, boundary-breaking chef and a bright new voice for change in the food world. After the taping wrapped and before the show aired, Fati was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Not one to ever slow down or admit defeat, the star chef vowed to spend her final year traveling the world, eating delicious food, and making memories with her loved ones. But when her condition abruptly worsened, her plans were sidelined. She pivoted, determined to make her final days count as she worked to tell the story of a brown girl chef who set out to make a name for herself, her food, and her culture. Including writing from Fatima during her last months and contributions by her mother, Farezeh, and her collaborator, Tarajia Morrell, this deftly woven account is an inspiring ode to the food, family, and countries Fatima loved so much. Alternating between past and present, readers are transported back to Pakistan and the childhoods of both Fatima and Farezeh, each deeply affected by cultural barriers that shaped the course of their lives. From the rustic stalls of the outdoor markets of Karachi to the kitchen and dining room of Meadowood, the acclaimed three-star Michelin restaurant where she apprenticed, Fati reflects on her life and her identity as a chef, a daughter, and a queer woman butting up against traditional views. This triumphant memoir is at once an exploration of the sense of wonder that made Fatima so special, and a shining testament to the resilience of the human spirit. At its core, it is a story about what it means to truly live, a profound and exquisite portrait of savoring every moment.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs asks some provocative questions: What if, in the near future, the majority of people will be disabled―and what if that’s not a bad thing? And what if disability justice and disabled wisdom are crucial to creating a future in which it’s possible to survive fascism, climate change, and pandemics and to bring about liberation Building on the work of her game-changing book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about disability justice at the end of the world, documenting the many ways disabled people kept and are keeping each other―and the rest of the world―alive during Trump, fascism and the COVID-19 pandemic. Other subjects include crip interdependence, care and mutual aid in real life, disabled community building, and disabled art practice as survival and joy. Written over the course of two years of disabled isolation during the pandemic, this is a book of love letters to other disabled QTBIPOC (and those concerned about disability justice, the care crisis, and surviving the apocalypse); honor songs for kin who are gone; recipes for survival; questions and real talk about care, organizing, disabled families, and kin networks and communities; and wild brown disabled femme joy in the face of death. With passion and power, The Future Is Disabled remembers our dead and insists on our future.
Lt Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay Choudhry’s The War Diary of Asha-san : From Tokyo to Netaji’s Indian National Army (Tr. Tanvi Srivastava) was written in Japanese between 1943 and 1947. Translated into English for the first time by Tanvi Srivastava, it is a memoir of courage, honor, and love, by a young girl who must grow up quickly in the midst of war. In June 1943, seventeen-year-old Bharati ‘Asha’ Sahay, a headstrong Indian teenager living in Japan during the Second World War, decides to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army after meeting Subhas Chandra Bose. She starts to jot down her thoughts in a diary, and thus begins one of the most significant personal accounts of the Indian freedom movement. Together with her father, Anand Mohan Sahay—a close companion of Bose—and others committed to the cause of Indian independence, Asha forges a path that takes her from war-torn Tokyo to the jungles of Thailand. She learns how to hold a rifle and shoot the enemy, and she discovers what it means to be a patriot fighting for the liberation of a country she has no memories of but carries deep in her heart.
Debut novels sit alongside classic works in translation. Established novelists alongside emerging ones. From sibling love to queer love, immigrants to refugees, and independent women to ghosts, this month’s crop of new fiction is a literary feast.
Fatima Asghar’s When We Were Sisters is the lyrical debut novel from the acclaimed author of If They Come For Us. Asghar traces the intense bond of three orphaned siblings who, after their parents die, are left to raise one another. The youngest, Kausar, grapples with the incomprehensible loss of their parents as she also charts out her own understanding of gender; Aisha, the middle sister, spars with her “crybaby” younger sibling as she desperately tries to hold on to her sense of family in an impossible situation; and Noreen, the eldest, does her best in the role of sister-mother while also trying to create a life for herself, on her own terms. As Kausar grows up, she must contend with the collision of her private and public worlds, and choose whether to remain in the life of love, sorrow, and codependency that she’s known or carve out a new path for herself. When We Were Sisters tenderly examines the bonds and fractures of sisterhood, names the perils of being three Muslim American girls alone against the world, and ultimately illustrates how those who’ve lost everything might still make homes in one another.
K. R. Meera’s Jezebel (Tr. Abhirami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar) is about a young doctor in Kerala, who struggles against the cruel realities of a patriarchal world—realities that not even her education, resolve, or professional brilliance can shield her from. Her already contentious divorce proceedings go suddenly awry, and her unhappy marriage holds complex secrets. In K.R. Meera’s blistering new novel, which takes the form of a courtroom drama to show us the rich inner worlds of its characters, we see Jezebel reflect on her life and its pivotal points as she takes the stand. Through her memories, we see her grow from a reticent, serious young woman to a rebel who refuses to bend to the conventions of society. Like the Biblical story of Queen Jezebel, who was much maligned as a scheming harlot and infamously thrown to her death from her palace window, Jezebel is a novel that asks if independent women can ever live lives that are free of judgment. K.R. Meera’s hypnotic prose, in this elegant translation from the Malayalam by Abhirami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar, makes resonant allusions to the Bible in powerful ways that elucidate the correlations between legend and the protagonist’s life while also exploring how sexuality and gender roles are manipulated by the dictates of society.
Vasundhara’s Tejo Tungabhadra: Tributaries Of Time (Tr. Maithreyi Karnoor) tells the story of two rivers on different continents whose souls are bound together by history. On the banks of the river Tejo in Lisbon, Bella, a young Jewish refugee, and her family face daily threats to their lives and dignity from the deeply antisemitic society around them. Gabriel, her lover, sails to India with General Albuquerque’s fleet seeking wealth and a secure future for themselves. Meanwhile, on the banks of the Tungabhadra in the Vijayanagara Empire, the young couple Hampamma and Keshava find themselves caught in the storm of religious violence and the cruel rigmarole of tradition. The two stories converge in Goa with all the thunder and gush of meeting rivers. Set in the late 15th and early 16th century, Tejo Tungabhadra is a grand saga of love, ambition, greed, and a deep zest for life through the tossing waves of history.
Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s The Epic of Damarudhar (Tr. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay) was originally published between 1910 and 1917, and collected in book form in 1923. The Epic of Damarudhar story cycle occupies an important and unique position in the history of Bengali literature. Tackling cosmology and mythology, class and caste abuse, nativist demagoguery, and the harsh reality of rural poverty, all by means of unrelentingly fierce black comedy, Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s cycle of seven stories featuring the raconteur Damarudhar, remains prescient social commentary to this day. With its generic fusion of tall tales, science, myth, politics, and the absurd, the work also announces the emergence of the genre of modern fantasy in Bengal. A detailed introduction, bibliography, and extensive annotation bring to life the context for these stories, highlighting key intertexts, political nuances, and important mythological references. This volume also contains the first translation of a rare biographical piece on the author, which includes long autobiographical parts written by Trailokyanath himself.
Janice Pariat’s Everything the Light Touches is an epic of travelers, of discovery, of time, of science, of human connection, and of the impermanent nature of the universe and life itself—a bold and brilliant saga that unfolds through the adventures and experiences of four intriguing characters. Shai is a young woman in modern India. Lost and drifting, she travels to her country’s Northeast and rediscovers, through her encounters with indigenous communities, ways of being that realign and renew her. Evelyn is a student of science in Edwardian England. Inspired by Goethe’s botanical writings, she leaves Cambridge on a quest to wander the sacred forests of the Lower Himalayas. Linnaeus, a botanist and taxonomist, who famously declared “God creates; Linnaeus organizes,” sets off on an expedition to an unfamiliar world, the far reaches of Lapland in 1732. Goethe is a philosopher, writer, and one of the greatest minds of his age. While traveling through Italy in the 1780s, he formulates his ideas for “The Metamorphosis of Plants,” a little-known, revelatory text that challenges humankind’s propensity to reduce plants—and the world—into immutable parts. Drawn richly from scientific and botanical ideas, Everything the Light Touches is a swirl of ever-expanding themes: the contrasts between modern India and its colonial past, urban and rural life, capitalism and centuries-old traditions of generosity and gratitude, script and “song and stone.”
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s Helen House is her debut novel. Right before meeting her girlfriend Amber’s parents for the first time, the unnamed narrator of Helen House learns that she and her partner share a similar trauma: both of their sisters are dead. As the narrator wonders what else Amber has been hiding, she struggles with her own secret—using sex as a coping mechanism—as well as confusion and guilt over whether she really cares about Amber, or if she’s only using her for sex. When they arrive at the parents’ rural upstate home, a quaint but awkward first meeting unravels into a nightmare in which the narrator finds herself stranded in a family’s decades-long mourning ritual. At turns terrifying and erotic, Helen House is a queer ghost story about trauma and grief.
Karan Madhok’s A Beautiful Decay is about Vishnu, a twenty-one-year-old Indian student out drinking in a bar in Washington D.C., who is murdered in a hate crime. At the moment of his death, Vishnu takes flight and traces the sequence of events that led to his life being extinguished. Speeding through the past, present, and future, his consciousness witnesses the hate and violence on two continents. As Vishnu looks back on his short life, we see the brutal acts of his father who built an empire in the Hindi heartland of India on the blood and trampled beliefs of others so his family could lead the good life. When Vishnu gets to America, he finds that the detestation and othering that targeted one set of people in his homeland is replaced by more of the same in the country he has landed in, except this time he doesn’t belong to the class of oppressors but that of the oppressed. Visceral and intense, this tremendous debut novel is a clear-eyed look at the barbarity that lies just beneath the surface in countries like India and America and the toll it takes on the lives of innocents.
Home, grieving, kinship, patriarchy, power, privilege, memory, migration, language, climate change, decolonization, race, class, gender, and sexuality. These are just a few of the themes explored in this month’s poetry collections.
Dipika Mukherjee’s Dialect of Distant Harbors explores themes of home, grieving, and kinship. With wonder, empathy, and even rage, Dialect of Distant Harbors summons a shared humanity to examine issues of illness and family. Dipika Mukherjee’s poems redefine belonging and migration in a misogynistic and racist world. “A grievous vastness to this world,” she writes, “beyond human experience.” As the world recovers from a global pandemic and the failure of modern government, these poems are incantations to our connections to the human family—whether in Asia, Europe, or the United States. Dialect of Distant Harbors focuses on what is most resilient in ourselves and our communities.
Raena Shirali’s Summonings investigates, in the docupoetics tradition, the ongoing practice of witch (daayan) hunting in India. Here, poems interrogate the political implications and shortcomings of writing Subaltern personae while acknowledging the author’s Westernized positionality. Continuing to explore multi-national and intersectional concerns around identity raised in her debut collection, Shirali asks how first- & second-generation immigrants reconcile the self with the lineages that shape it, wondering aloud about those lineages’ relationships to misogyny & violence. These precarious poems explore how antiquated & existing norms surrounding female mysticism in India & America inform each culture’s treatment of women. As Jericho Brown wrote of Shirali’s poetics in Gilt, her comment on culture, identity, and justice is her comment on poetry. Summonings is a comment on power and patriarchy, on authorial privilege, the shifting role of witness, and, ultimately, on an ethical poetics, grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other.
Jaspreet Singh’s How to Hold a Pebble is their second collection of poems and locates humans in the Anthropocene, while also warning against the danger of a single story. These pages present intimate engagements with memory, place, language, migration; with enchantment, uncanniness, uneven climate change, and everyday decolonization; with entangled human/non-human relationships and deep anxieties about essential/non-essential economic activities. They explore strategies for survival and action by way of a playful return to the quotidian and its manifold interactions with the global and planetary.
Anuradha Bhowmik’s Brown Girl Chromatography is her debut poetry collection. Her life as a Bangladeshi-born American girl growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the United States gives it shape. Brown Girl Chromatography interrogates issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in a post-9/11 America while navigating the poet’s millennial childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The poems follow Bhowmik as she learns about the cruelties in both American and Bangladeshi worlds without any guidance or instruction on how to survive these conflicting spheres. Any visible traces of her Bangladeshi life result in racial ridicule from her peers, while participating and assimilating into American culture is met with violence and abuse at home. As language and memory intersect, Bhowmik draws on pop culture and free association to examine her displacement from many angles and make meaning out of hurt.
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