#FiveDesiFaves: Neema Avashia on the five nonfiction books that have shaped her life and work

Desi Books Ep 70 w/ Neema Avashia Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 70 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #FiveDesiFaves segment, we have Neema Avashia who has a new book out: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. She’s sharing the five desi books that have played the biggest role in shaping her identity as a reader, a writer, and as a person. These are works of nonfiction by The Women of South Asian Descent Collective, Vijay Prashad, Mira Jacob, Sejal Shah, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH NEEMA AVASHIAINTRODUCTION

Neema Avashia was born and raised in southern West Virginia to parents who immigrated to the United States. She has been a history and civics teacher, and an educational activist, in the Boston Public Schools system since 2003. Her essays have appeared in the Bitter Southerner, Catapult, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her first book, an essay collection titled Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, was just published by West Virginia University Press on March 1st, 2022. Neema presently lives in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain with her partner, Laura.

When Neema Avashia tells people where she’s from, their response is nearly always a disbelieving “There are Indian people in West Virginia?” A queer Asian American teacher and writer, Avashia fits few Appalachian stereotypes. But the lessons she learned in childhood about race and class, gender and sexuality continue to inform the ways that she moves through the world today: how she loves, how she teaches, how she advocates, how she struggles.

Another Appalachia examines both the roots and the resonance of Avashia’s identity as a queer Desi Appalachian woman, while encouraging readers to envision more complex versions of both Appalachia and the nation as a whole. With lyric and narrative explorations of foodways, religion, sports, standards of beauty, social media, gun culture, and more, Another Appalachia mixes nostalgia and humor, sadness and sweetness, personal reflection and universal questions.

The transcript of this episode with all the books mentioned is also up on the website at desibooks.co.

And now, here’s Neema Avashia with her #FiveDesiFaves.

Neema Avashia’s nonfiction debut is Another Appalachia. In #FiveDesiFaves, she shares her life-shaping books by The Women of South Asian Descent Collective, Vijay Prashad, Mira Jacob, Sejal Shah, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. @DesiBooks


#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH NEEMA AVASHIA

Hey, everyone. My name is Neema Avashia, and I’m the author of Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, which was published by West Virginia University Press on March 1st, 2022. I’m so excited to share my #FiveDesiFaves with the Desi Books community today.

 My book is an essay collection that centers questions of identity, belonging, and visibility. So, when I was making today’s list, I thought about the five books by desi authors that have played the biggest role in shaping my identity, both as a reader and writer, and as a person. These books span nearly thirty years of publishing, and I’m really excited to share them with you, and share why they’re so important to me.


I was in high school when my older sister gifted me the anthology, Our Feet Walk the Sky: Women of the South Asian Diaspora, edited by The Women of South Asian Descent Collective, and published by Aunt Lute Books in 1993. My copy is still marked with the multitude of tattered post-its I used to flag pages and passages that resonated for me. This book, the first anthology to center the voices of South Asian women in the United States, was also the first time I saw Desi women writing their truth, whether in fiction, in essays, or in poetry, and the first time the possibility entered my mind that I, too, might one day write such truths. Coming from a family where people are apt to say that the truth is bitter, and therefore not something we should put on paper, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women whose stories fill the pages of Our Feet Walk The Sky. They cleared the path for so many of the writers who have come after them. 

In my own book, I’ve worked hard to articulate the questions that arose for me as a young person growing up in southern West Virginia when it came to how I understood my own identity relative to those being expressed by people around me. What did it mean to be the child of immigrants in spaces where most of my classmates’ families had lived in West Virginia for generations? What did it mean to possess brown skin in places that were overwhelmingly white? What did it mean to continually feel at odds with the gender expectations being expressed by both my family, and the wider community? I did not have many models who I could turn to for answers to these questions. Much of growing up was paving paths in places where no path existed. And part of what I hope to do with my book is to offer queer Desi youth a model, so that perhaps their journey goes more smoothly than mine did. 

“Our Feet Walk the Sky by The Women of South Asian Descent Collective […] the first anthology to center the voices of S Asian women in the US, was also the first time I saw Desi women writing their truth…” ~Neema Avashia #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


I had a similarly formative reading experience in college when I read Vijay Prashad’s book, The Karma of Brown Folk, published by University of Minnesota Press in the year 2000. Prashad’s book title references W.E.B. DuBois’ book, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he lays forth a theory of “double consciousness” whereby Black people experience America through both the lenses of nationality and race. In his own work, Prashad attempts to elicit this same kind of consciousness for South Asians in the United States. I remember feeling like it was the first time I’d heard a Desi person give language to ideas that I’d been grappling with internally for years. 

Prashad’s analysis of the ways in which Desi people’s positioning as “model minorities” contributes to anti-Blackness was particularly resonant for me, having grown up in a community where the impacts of inequality were so visible, but my parents and aunties and uncles were often unable to see our role in perpetuating the inequality. His prescient assessment of the impacts of Hindu nationalism explained so much of the ideological dissonance I felt and continue feel when speaking with family members more closely bound to India than I am. This book played a huge role in the development of my political and social identity as an Indian American, and pushed me to ask hard questions about the role that I play in either advancing, or impeding racial justice.

“Don’t talk politics” was a message I often heard in my house growing up. Talking politics eroded relationships, and was therefore to be avoided. But what happens when the politics become intensely personal? When the politics, and the politicians, seek to erase your existence? Prashad modeled a kind of political awareness and engagement in The Karma of Brown Folk that I had not witnessed among adults in my community growing up. And these questions also found their way into Another Appalachia, as I grapple with the hard move right that has been made by loved ones in both West Virginia, and India, and the implications of that move for our relationships with one another. In an era of intense polarization, I don’t think the solution is to not talk about our differences. Instead, I think we have to talk, and write, about the differences if we are going to rebuild connections with one another. In my writing, I have tried to parse both the origins, and the impacts, of the political divisions that I encounter more and more with people from home. And I do this not because I seek to blame them, or exculpate myself, but rather because I think similar division exists in so many families and communities, and that surfacing it is the first step towards addressing it.

“[Vijay] Prashad modeled a kind of political awareness and engagement in The Karma of Brown Folk that I had not witnessed among adults in my community growing up.” ~Neema Avashia #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


From 2000, I’m going to take a giant leap forward to 2018, when Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk, was published by Penguin Random House. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who is known by many as the “mother of multicultural literature”, has talked about how important it is for young people to have access to books that serve as mirrors, books that serve as windows, and books that serve as sliding doors. Growing up in the eighties in southern West Virginia, I never encountered a book that was a mirror. I didn’t know what it was like to read a book and see myself fully reflected in it. I didn’t have that experience until 2018, when Good Talk was published.

Here was a Desi woman, the daughter of immigrants, writing non-fiction about interracial relationships, about the role race plays in family dynamics, and the ways in which the 2016 election landed on Black and Brown people in this country, and impacted our relationships with white people in our lives. With every page, I found myself feeling more and more seen, more and more heard. I must have bought at least fifteen copies to give to my friends and family.

Among the many things I loved about this book, one of my deepest appreciations was for the way Jacob finds moments of humor and lightness even in the context of really heavy questions or thorny situations. This ability to balance heaviness and lightness is something I’ve tried to hold at the center of Another Appalachia as well, sharing sweet memories from childhood, like making my first shot in a basketball game, with harder memories of identity-based discrimination. It isn’t always easy to hold this balance—sometimes I find myself more inclined to focus on the sweet, sometimes more perplexed and drawn to exploring the bitter. But, in trying to write places and people who I love deeply, and also see clearly, it has felt important to convey balance in my telling of this story, and to make sure that I am the most implicated person in any of the complexity that I’m describing.

“Growing up […] I didn’t know what it was like to read a book and see myself fully reflected in it. I didn’t have that experience until 2018, when [Mira Jacob’s] Good Talk was published.” ~Neema Avashia #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


My last two picks come from the year 2020, which was such a hard year to publish a book, and therefore, makes me want to keep celebrating books released that year, even two years after publication.

First up, This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah, which was published by University of Georgia Press in 2020. What I love most about this book is that it is about so many things all at once: about race and gender and class, about identity and belonging, about visibility and invisibility, about family and expectation, about loss and how we wear it as we move through the world. As someone who aspires to write in ways that surface and center intersectionality, reading Sejal’s book was like taking a master class on the topic. 

One of my favorite aspects of This is One Way to Dance is the way in which Shah blends lyric and narrative forms to create a collection where each essay shatters whatever expectation our brain may have created about what it thought would be coming next. I think that lyric forms can sometimes help writers reach places in their thinking that they can’t access through traditional narrative, and found this to be the case in my own work, where writing essays in the form of directions, spice catalogs, and lists allowed me to evoke sentiments about home more fully than I could otherwise.

“As someone who aspires to write in ways that surface and center intersectionality, reading Sejal [Shah’s This is One Way to Dance] was like taking a master class on the topic.” ~Neema Avashia #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


And finally, I want to talk about World of Wonders, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, also published in 2020 by Milkweed Editions. I’ve purchased even more copies of World of Wonders for friends and family than I did with Good Talk. I’ve never read another book where every single essay ended with me needing to comment out loud to my partner about how much I loved it, and how beautiful it was. And yet, when reading World of Wonders, this is exactly what happened. The interplay between explorations of the natural world, and reflections on what it means to grow up as the child of immigrants in the United States, what it means to live in and build bi-cultural space, is just so satisfying in this book. The language is lush and poetic and just pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. There are some essays in this collection that I read over and over again, and they never feel exhausted of beauty or meaning.

Of the many things I appreciate about World of Wonders, I especially love the way in which Nezhukumatathil is able to mine small moments in life for their meaning. The skill required to combine observation with reflection, an attention to detail with the ability to excavate the significance beneath the moment is something I strive for in my writing as well. In listening to me read my essays aloud during my book tour, my mother has often remarked that she never realized how closely I was observing as a child, and how those childhood memories can still hold weight so many years later. Indeed, one of the core themes that surfaced over the course of the book is the way in which those moments during childhood play such a role in shaping the way we view the world, and move in the world, later in life. 

“Of the many things I appreciate about World of Wonders, I especially love the way in which [Aimee] Nezhukumatathil is able to mine small moments in life for their meaning.” ~Neema Avashia #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


These five books, all non-fiction, span a significant portion of my reading life and, in many ways, set the foundation for me to be able to write my own book, to have confidence in the story that I’m telling. And to believe that the book will find its readers, just as these books did. It’s been such a lovely experience getting to revisit them, and to share them with you here. I hope that if you’ve already read them, this will make you pull them back down off the shelf for a re-read. And if you haven’t already read them, I hope that this will make you consider picking them up!

If you’re interested in another book that tackles similar themes, I hope you’ll consider reading my essay collection, which examines both the roots and resonance of growing up queer and Indian in Appalachia: how that experience impacted my childhood, and how it continues to inform the way I move in the world as an adult today.

That’s it from me. Huge thanks to Jenny Bhatt and Desi Books for giving me the time and space to share with you today, and for doing so much to amplify Desi writers and their work.

Neema Avashia’s nonfiction debut is Another Appalachia. In #FiveDesiFaves, she shares her life-shaping books by The Women of South Asian Descent Collective, Vijay Prashad, Mira Jacob, Sejal Shah, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 70 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today, we were listening to Neema Avashia who has a new book out: Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. She shared the #FiveDesiFaves that have shaped her identity as a reader, a writer, and as a person.

Episode 71 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Please tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. You’ll get all the updates you might have missed as well as some new stuff. And please share this on via social media if you enjoyed listening or reading. Help raise the tide of South Asian literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.™
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