Hello and welcome to Episode 1 of DesiBooks — news and views about Desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in even as a gazillion things are competing for your attention 24/7 during these trying times.
As I’d mentioned in the trailer, 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.
WHY A DESI BOOKS PODCAST NOW?
In this first-ever episode, I’d like to just set the stage a bit by answering some questions about what’s being aimed for here.
Let’s start off with the inevitable question: why start yet another literary podcast in a world of so many? So here’s the thing. I floated the idea back in late-2018 and early-2019 on social media because I wasn’t sure myself that the world needed this. And, in the time that it’s taken me to make up my mind and get my ducks in a row, there have been a few other excellent new desi-centered literary podcasts — particularly in India. What will make this one worth your while, you might ask? So here’s a bit more about the why and wherefore for DesiBooks.
First, I believe that, while South Asian writers the world over have been progressing more than ever, it’s not at all easy to discover the gems out there because of uneven or negligible media coverage. Even within the respective South Asian countries. Never was this more evident to me than when I started looking at how to market my own upcoming books. Every platform I considered — whether a podcast or a literary magazine or a literary news website — featured hardly any South Asian writers beyond the usual two or three who had, more often than not, hired expensive publicists. And every time I asked a non South Asian reader about the last South Asian writer they’d read, I got either Jhumpa Lahiri or Salman Rushdie. Seriously. So, yes, there’s a need for more platforms for spotlighting South Asian writers. Period.
Second, there are, generally speaking, three kinds of literary podcasts. There’s the book club kind, where one or more readers get together and discuss or recommend books. A lot of this is going on right now with our current reality of staying housebound. Then, there’s the interview kind, where a host talks with a writer about their work. And, finally, there’s the literary essay or conversation kind, where the host or hosts hold forth on a particular literary topic for the duration. All three formats are enjoyable and informative in their own ways. What I’ve found missing, though, is a single place that sums up news and views about notable works (in book form or online), events, awards, reviews, interviews, etc. for South Asian literature. If you follow the excellent US-based platform, Literary Hub, think of something along those lines but the desi version and in podcast format.
Third, let’s get to why this is a podcast vs a website or a newsletter. I did consider both of those options as well. And, in the last decade, I’ve done both and gotten to 500+ subscribers. While there will eventually be a website and a newsletter, I simply wanted to try out the audio format this time around and try to reach another segment of readers.
Still with me? Thank you.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT: THE GENERAL FORMAT
Let’s get to what you can expect in terms of the general format each week.
— We’ll keep this to a brisk 30 minutes.
— Over time, there will be co-hosts from different South Asian countries, especially folks who are more knowledgeable in the genres and countries that I’m not.
— Absolutely, we’ll have desi writers on to talk about their works. In addition to the usual Q&A interview format, there will also be an essay format where they can discuss a literary topic without any interruption from me.
— Each week, we’ll have some new notable book recommendations. If there are no new upcoming releases in the coming couple of months, we’ll look back to recent releases from the last couple of months. Over time, these recommendations will come from other invited writers too.
— I’m a big believer in literary magazines and the yeoman’s work they do with emerging writers. So we’ll look at some litmag works by South Asian writers — fiction, non-fiction, reviews, and interviews.
— If there are any new awards or events related to South Asian literature, I’ll be mentioning those too. I’m hoping that organizers will be willing to come on and talk more about them too.
— With all of the above, I welcome tips and links via social media. Feel free to tag @DesiBooks on Twitter or email email@example.com to let me know if you’re a desi writer with a new book or new piece of published writing or if you’re part of an event or have been shortlisted for or won an award.
— And, finally, if you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m partial to the occasional thread where I rant or rave about some desi literary topic du jour. Yes, you’re likely to get a brief rant or rave about desi literature here too.
— I’ll post links to everything mentioned on the episode page so you can dive into them as you like.
Sound good so far? None of this is cast in stone. It will, as all things do, evolve with feedback and trial and error.
NOTABLE NEW BOOKS FOR APRIL (so far)
Missed Translations by Sopan Deb — This memoir, due out on 21st April, is by a stand-up comedian and NYT writer. Deb also covered the Trump campaign as an embedded journalist for CBS News. Kal Penn says that Deb “taps into both the darkness and light that permeate a story about love, family, and understanding.” And Kirkus Reviews says that it’s “a sympathetic portrait of South Asians who are neither crazy and rich nor humorless nerds.”
You People by Nikita Lalwani — This novel is out in the UK already. Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted, won the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2007. This one is about undocumented immigrants working at a London pizzeria. Kamila Shamsie says it’s intelligent and heart-piercing. Pankaj Mishra says it’s astute and compassionate. High praise indeed. Here’s a Guardian review.
Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal — This non-fiction book about cognitive biases is out in the UK already and will be out in the US in June. Angela Saini says it’s “an exhaustive, brilliantly researched survey of bias.” Nikesh Shukla says that it’s “essential for the times we are living in.” Here’s a Guardian review. NOTE: Dr Agarwal has agreed to come on the show in June 2020.
NOTABLE NEW SHORT STORIES
Sujata Shekar has a lovely short story titled ‘Feeling Words’ over at the Kenyon Review Online. It’s a meditation on language, love, and the ways we sanctify the latter with the former.
Kamila Shamsie has a short story titled ‘Savage’ over at Literary Hub. It’s an excerpt from an anthology titled Resist by Comma Press including stories and essays about protests. The anthology is out this month and features a couple of other South Asian writers as well.
NOTABLE NEW NON-FICTION
There have been some lovely non-fiction works already this month and we’ve just gotten started.
Puneet Sandhu has a funny piece at The Rumpus about women responding to ads about razors, sanitary napkins, and the like.
Shahnaz Habib has a personal essay titled ‘Two Minutes’ about eating that Indian staple, Maggi Noodles, throughout her life and all that it has signified. Head over to the new litmag called Multiplicity to read it.
Bijal Vachharajani has a beautiful personal essay, ‘But This Is What I Have Now‘, about how she managed with the grief of losing her partner over at Adda Stories.
Sukhada Tatke is dealing with spousal separation during these times. He’s in France and she’s in India. She writes about how they’re coping over at Livemint in ‘A Long-distance Marriage in the Time of Lockdown‘.
Ulka Anjaria has an insightful piece about Indian cinema fandom called ‘India’s Fans and India’s Future‘ at Public Books. She writes of this kind of fandom being a form of criticism, a relationship (with oneself, not just the object of one’s fandom), and a deeper self-expression borne out of love.
Aatif Rashid has a lovely column up at Kenyon Review Online about reading during a pandemic. It’s a slightly different take from the many pandemic reading lists so worth a look-see.
And the ever-sharp Arundhati Roy has an essay titled ‘The Pandemic is a Portal‘ at the Financial Times about this pandemic and all that it means for us politically and personally, collectively and individually.
NOTABLE NEW INTERVIEWS
At his podcast, The Quarantine Tapes, Paul Holdengraber talked with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books Publishing about living with hope in these times and what we can do to help each other.
Sayantani Dasgupta has an interview at the Uni of NC website about her Twelve Authors Interview project focusing on South Asian writers, which she began this year. I’ve been following the project’s progress with the various interviews and it’s been very interesting.
Mira Jacob was in a video conversation with Kevin Nguyen and Cathy Park-Hong. Hundreds joined in live and it was, by all accounts, an online party. I missed the fun but I will be catching up with the recording.
Two large online literary events of note are both currently being run from India.
The Indian publisher, Juggernaut, and Scroll.in are running a two-week online lit fest and, having watched some of the videos, it seems there’s something for every kind of reader. It’s called #ReadInstead and you can find more information at either website — Juggernaut’s or Scroll’s.
The Jaipur Literary Festival is also kicking off an online edition of their famous format. This is #JLFPresentsBraveNewWorld. Follow them on Twitter for more as they share videos and such.
In awards, Aria Aber, a poet and a writer of Afghan origin, who was raised in Germany and is now in the US, has won a Whiting Award. This is $50,000 given to emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry based on early accomplishments and promise of great work to come. You can check out the details at the Whiting.org website.
Speaking of awards, I’m going to have to close out with a bit of a rant.
This month has seen the announcement of both the Booker International Shortlist in the UK and the Best Translated Book Longlist in the US. The former has six books representing six countries and the latter has thirty-five books representing twenty countries. And my beef, you ask? Again, not a single book from a South Asian country. How does this happen? This is a long, thorny discussion for which I will have to invite some publishing industry and translator friends.
Another thing that niggled was the 2020 US National Book Awards Jury announcement. Arguably, this is the most diverse judges panel yet. And it’s headed by the amazing Roxane Gay. But, sadly, not one writer or poet of South Asian origin here. Again, this issue of representation will need to be discussed at length with others who are more knowledgeable than myself. So I’ll stop here for now.
You’ve been listening to episode 1 of DesiBooks — news and views about desi literature from the world over.
More soon in Episode 2. Tune in next weekend. Don’t forget to follow on Twitter @desibooks and tag the account if you have requests or suggestions. Or email at hellodesibooks[at]gmail.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.