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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Shabnam Samuel and ‘A Fractured Life’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 

Shabnam Samuel is a writer, coach, social media trainer, and the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat, an international writing retreat based out of Panchgani, India. The retreat incorporates mindful living along with creativity and wellness following Ayurveda principles, with yoga, meditation and writing workshops. As a writer, Shabnam has been writing ever since she can remember. Her essays have been published online in Brain Child Magazine and Your Tango.  Shabnam also hosts a local TV show called Dew Drops and Words that broadcasts to 2.4 million viewers on the MHz network in the Washington, DC area. You can find her on YouTube under the name ‘Dew Drops and Words’. Shabnam is also a business coach and she mentors with the Empowered Women International in Alexandria, Virginia, an organization that helps train low-income, immigrant, and refugee women on how to be a successful entrepreneurs.

About A Fractured Life.

Abandoned by her parents as a three-year-old, and ultimately leaving her home country India for a new life in America as a young mother of a three-year-old son, this is not only an immigrant’s story, but a poignant and powerful memoir that is at first, one of sadness and continuing adversity, but ultimately one of strength, purpose, and the universal triumph of hope. It is a story of dislocation, disruption, and despair, and brings focus to the silencing of girlhood and womanhood and how with time, love, and support we can work our way out of that silence.Raised by an orphan of the Russian Revolution and an Indian Sepoy who, during WWI was stationed in Iraq (Mesopotamia), her story arc begins in a small town called Cuttack in the East of India and takes her to the capital of the most powerful nation in the world, Washington DC. It is a humanizing story of mixed races, religion, and continents. Shabnam Samuel was twenty seven when she moved to the US, carrying with her a troubled marriage, an almost estranged husband, and a three-year-old son. Hoping to create a fresh start from everything that was holding her down, it took Shabnam twenty-five years of trials and tribulations to finally find her voice, her strength, and her place in this world.

SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with? 

SHABNAM SAMUEL: The first author I fell in love with was Enid Blyton. The families that she created with the Famous Five, were families that I longed to belong to. They had everything, that I did not have.

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Chai, Chai , all the way!

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Okay, don’t laugh, Archie and Jughead comics!!  In your youth to show you that life should be one where you can laugh and as an adult to tell you not to take life too seriously.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

Moby Dick. I gave up mid way.

Favorite quote  

I do not understand the mystery of grace-only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us”-

Anne Lamott. I am not sure which of her books this is from. I want to say Bird by Bird, but I could be wrong.

Favorite book to film? 

The Godfather. Everything was so brilliantly portrayed. The voice, the intonations, the accent, just about everything.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

Curious Iguana in Frederick, MD

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

That once you write a book (non-fiction) you are supposed to keep writing essays that revolve around your theme.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

I am not so sure. This is my first book.

Dog, Cat, Or?  

Parrot.

Ideal vacation?

Sea, sun and my ideal partner.

Favorite book cover?

Can I say mine?

Favorite song?

As of now a Bollywood song called Hawayein from the movie  Jab Harry Met Sejal.

Favorite painting/ work of art?  

My son’s drawing  of a lion and a poem he wrote to go with it when he was 9.

Any Lit Festival anecdote you want a share? A great meeting with a fan? An epiphany?

I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in October and the women and girls who came up to tell me, how my book inspired them to write their own stories.

What is your favorite Austen novel, and film adaptation?

Sense and Sensibility. I loved the costumes, the drama, the humor the bonnets!!

Recommend a Small Press and/or Literary Journal?

Green Writers Press out of Vermont.

Last impulse book buy and why?

You know, I actually never buy books impulsively. I buy a lot of them but each one is carefully considered. I read mostly memoirs, but will buy all friends books that I am connected to.

Soniah Kamal is an award winning essayist and fiction writer. Her novel Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan, a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.  NPR calls it ‘thought provoking and deliciously readable’ and People Magazine says “This inventive retelling of Pride and Prejudice charms.” Unmarriageable is an Amazon Best Books pick, a People Magazine’s Pick, a New York Post Best Book pick, a Library Reads pick and more. Soniah’s debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Award for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and is an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s short story ‘Jelly Beans’ was selected for the Best South Asian Short Stories Anthology 2017. Her TEDx talk is about regrets and redemption. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Catapult, The Normal School, Literary Hub, and has been widely anthologized. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia State University where she was a Paul Bowles Fellow in Fiction. She currently teaches creative writing at Rhineheart University and reviews books for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Soniah will be giving a keynote address at the Jane Austen Summer Program Conference (2019) and she is a Jane Austen Literacy Ambassador. She was born in Pakistan, grew up in England and Saudi Arabia, and currently resides in Georgia.

More Drunk on Ink Interviews:

Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

Sonya HuberPain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir

Kathy Wilson FlorenceThree of Cups, a novel

Sara Luce LookCharis Books and More, independent book store

S J SinduMarriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel

Rosalie Morales KearnsKingdom of Men, a novel

Saadia FaruqiMeet Yasmin, children’s literature

Rene DenfeldThe Child Finder, a novel

Jamie BrennerThe Husband Hour, a novel

Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

Kirsten Imani KasaiThe House of Erzulie, a novel

Thrity UmrigarThe Secrets Between Us, novel

John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss

Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood

Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel

Tanaz BathenaA Girl Like That, YA novel

 

 

Drunk on Ink Q & A with Elise Hooper and ‘The Other Alcott’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 

Elise Hooper lives with her husband and two young daughters in Seattle, where she writes and teaches literature and history. The Other Alcott is her first novel. Learning to See will be releasing January 29, 2018.

About The Other Alcott

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right. We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.  Stylish, outgoing, creative, May Alcott grows up longing to experience the wide world beyond Concord, Massachusetts. While her sister Louisa crafts stories, May herself is a talented and dedicated artist, taking lessons in Boston, turning down a marriage proposal from a well-off suitor, and facing scorn for entering what is very much a man’s profession.  Life for the Alcott family has never been easy, so when Louisa’s Little Women is published, its success eases the financial burdens they’d faced for so many years. Everyone agrees the novel is charming, but May is struck to the core by the portrayal of selfish, spoiled “Amy March.” Is this what her beloved sister really thinks of her?So May embarks on a quest to discover her own true identity, as an artist and a woman. From Boston to Rome, London, and Paris, this brave, talented, and determined woman forges an amazing life of her own, making her so much more than merely “The Other Alcott.”

SONIAH KAMAL: First author/book you read/fell in love with?

ELISE HOOPER: I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t think much about the authors behind them until I was about nine or ten and visited Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, MA. It sounds silly, but it wasn’t until I traipsed through her little bedroom and saw the desk at which she wrote Little Women that I realized that actual people wrote books and maybe I could write them too.

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Depending on the time of day, I’m happy to unwind with an iced tea or cocktail.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Oh boy, how about the Constitution?

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

This is an unpopular opinion, but I’m not a huge fan of Wuthering Heights. I’ve tried several times and just can’t slog through it.

A favorite quote from your book 

“I long to turn back the clock and mend the rift between us, though now that I think on it, if I could go back in time when would I go back to? When was our relationship ever simple?”

Your favorite book to film?

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I remember thinking that The Joy Luck Club adapted surprisingly well to the big screen.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

I have so many favorites! My daughter’s swim team practice is close to Island Books (Mercer Island, WA) so this is the independent bookstore that I visit the most. The staff is awesome and they always offer great book recommendations.

The one thing you wish you’d known about the writing life?

I held off on trying to write a book telling myself I needed to wait until life settled down and my kids got older. Well, it took a while, but finally I realized that life doesn’t settle down one bit as kids get older, it just changes. So I just dove in and started working and have been surprised by the delight I’ve taken in writing as my girls have developed as readers and writers. My daughters have seen my books take shape and I love that there’s no mystery about the creative process for them. They understand that if you want to produce something, you have to sit down and work on it for a long time. Creative work doesn’t just appear in a poof of special magic sparkle dust. It comes from hard work and a whole lot of elbow grease.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

I’m not sure yet because I only have one book out, but I can let you know after Learning to See is released (January 29, 2018).

Dog, Cat, Or?

Dogs all the way.

Favorite book cover?

This is a tough one! I just got up and scanned my bookshelves. Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese is gorgeous. All of that gold? Mmmm.

Favorite song?

We’re still gaga for Hamilton at my house. I’m still trying to get all the words down to “Satisfied.”

Recommend a Small Press and Literary Journal?

Flights, the literary journal produced by students at the school where I teach.

Last impulse book buy and why?

A staff recommendation tag at Elliott Bay Book Company drew me into buying Sawbones by Melissa Lenhardt a couple of weeks ago. It described it as a feminist Lonesome Dove and I was SOLD!

Soniah Kamal is an award winning essayist and fiction writer. Her novel Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan, a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.  NPR calls it ‘thought provoking and deliciously readable’ and People Magazine says “This inventive retelling of Pride and Prejudice charms.” Unmarriageable is an Amazon Best Books pick, a People Magazine’s Pick, a New York Post Best Book pick, a Library Reads pick and more. Soniah’s debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Award for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and is an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s short story ‘Jelly Beans’ was selected for the Best South Asian Short Stories Anthology 2017. Her TEDx talk is about regrets and redemption. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Catapult, The Normal School, Literary Hub, and has been widely anthologized. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia State University where she was a Paul Bowles Fellow in Fiction. She currently teaches creative writing at Rhineheart University and reviews books for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Soniah will be giving a keynote address at the Jane Austen Summer Program Conference (2019) and she is a Jane Austen Literacy Ambassador. She was born in Pakistan, grew up in England and Saudi Arabia, and currently resides in Georgia.

More Drunk on Ink Interviews:

Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

Sonya HuberPain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir

Kathy Wilson FlorenceThree of Cups, a novel

Sara Luce LookCharis Books and More, independent book store

S J SinduMarriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel

Rosalie Morales KearnsKingdom of Men, a novel

Saadia FaruqiMeet Yasmin, children’s literature

Rene DenfeldThe Child Finder, a novel

Jamie BrennerThe Husband Hour, a novel

Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

Kirsten Imani KasaiThe House of Erzulie, a novel

Thrity UmrigarThe Secrets Between Us, novel

John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss

Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood

Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel

Tanaz BathenaA Girl Like That, YA novel

 

 

Bearing Too Many Burdens: BEYOND BOLLYWOOD, THE SMITHSONIAN EXHIBIT ON INDIAN AMERICANS

by Sushumna Kannan

Beyond Bollywood is a promising title–to go beyond a culture’s stereotypes is as hard as any task could get. As we walk through this much-awaited exhibit on Indian Americans that is currently showing across different cities in the US and will do so until 2020, we realize that perhaps we expected a little too much of the title. For, in attempting to rid ourselves of one set of stereotypes, we often find them replaced with others—others that are somehow better or more positive stereotypes to have than the older ones. This is not to say that Beyond Bollywood is less important and could have been given a miss. Instead, in Beyond Bollywood, we witness a genuine and deep struggle to redefine a community against the current of simplistic, consumerish, dismissive understanding. However, such a redefinition is too arduous a task.

To replace Bollywood with a more realistic understanding of Indian Americans, the exhibit invokes yoga, fusion music born in the US with bhangra and hip hop, Indian art forms, festivals, Indian American doctors, dentists, engineers, motel owners and more. With orange-pink displays of catalogs accompanying large and small photographs–the exhibit is alluring and sleek. It is complete with multimedia installations that allow us to listen to music, watch videos and such. It has a hodge-podge of showcased items ranging from Indian jewelry, footwear, idols, lamps, postcards of miniature paintings, crafted jewelry boxes, musical instruments and other knick-knacks.

In a display titled, Desis, united we stand–a narrative on the aftermath of racial profiling of desis and protests against it is recorded. The “we” here is a proud Indian American community somewhat inclusive of other South Asians. The “we” includes second generation Indian American kids born in the US as well as Indians who migrated a generation ago and still are. This kind of clubbing of a large and diverse set of people makes it hard to understand who the intended viewer of this exhibit might be. The intended viewer appears to shift from the Desi community, to the second-generation kid to White Americans who eye us suspiciously in malls, parks and neighborhoods. While the exhibit is celebratory for the first two groups, it is informative for the last. Yet, it is not clear if talking of yoga and henna helped take the conversation forward.

In an accompanying display titled “divided we fall,” we are shown desis demonstrating for women’s rights and LGBT rights and protesting against racial discrimination, domestic violence. This nicely contemporizes the community’s involvement in American society, displacing the stereotype of the placid and safe Indian American. In a display titled “Let’s Dance,” again a celebratory tone takes over— “America has embraced Bollywood style dancing…” In a display titled “Freedom of Religion,” is another celebratory note on how diverse Indian Americans are. Yet, the true reference of this celebration is India itself–not just the fact that we enrich American landscapes with different architectural structures. Often, this reference back to India is missing. This leaves us feeling somewhat inadequate about the display…like we might have just heard one half of a sentence with ellipses at the end. An underlying assertion in this display is that Indian Americans are indeed a part of America–which is tragic because a number of White Americans do not think so–this sentiment of rejection accentuated by Trump’s recent policies.

In a display titled, “Freedom Here and There,” there is reference briefly to India and its freedom’s struggle. It reveals interesting facts about early immigrants who connected the struggles for freedom in India from British as well as their own for “dignity and rights” in the USA. More history on early immigrants from Punjab is intriguing. The history of Bhagat Singh Thind’s citizenship is extraordinarily fascinating. Yet, the ones on Spelling Bee, Cab drivers, motel owners and the like introduces Indian Americans to White Americans too sporadically rather than telling a more complicated story and capturing the less celebratory aspects of Indian Americans with dignity. A display on the American stereotypes on India with an update on how Indian Americans now play themselves onscreen and Bollywood has taken a hold in America is another celebratory voice. A display asking, “Who are Indian Americans?” kind of shifts to the White American as the intended audience, taking on the burden of providing information.

Beyond Bollywood has many interesting and arresting moments but no one vision that holds it together. It does not talk abou the uncomfortable and the celebratory voice loses its charm after a point. It could have, for instance, talked about how Yoga has adapted to America, with most teachers being non-American Indian. Or even invoked controversies about Yoga’s religious nature which parents often object to in schools. There could have been something more on Indian contributions to science and philosophy that connected to Indian Americans and something more on Indian dance forms–they appeared to lack details of the spiritual basis that is their bedrock. Arranged marriage, dowry and caste system should have been explained–unflinchingly, even if our theories of these appear impoverished, embarrassed, apologetic and un-decolonized at the moment.

How Indian Americans feel and relate should have been explored instead of an enumerative catalogue. The enumeration makes us wonder if nothing has changed since the British history of India at all and if India’s diversity still unnerves the western mind. At least, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, one sees an explanatory note on the excessive classification and categorization that was thought to produce knowledge. There should have been a mention of the summer holidays that second generation Indian American kids spend in India, what they love and hate about them, the parent-child conflict, the H4 work visa issue, immigration as such, home-sickness even when mostly at home in America and so on.

Lacking all these diverse narratives undercutting each other and offering only one grand narrative on Indian Americans, the Smithsonian’s curation of Beyond Bollywood reads like the State’s narrative through a government spokesperson who aims to please one and all and educates and informs in a diplomatic manner as well. On the whole, the exhibit bears too many burdens all at once–of being current, proud and useful. Despite this, the exhibit is timely, not because there is a rich narrative played out but because there is widespread ignorance about Indian Americans in American society, in 2018–more than a full century after the East and West met as never before, in the 19th century!

(this article originally appeared in Matters of Art)

 

Dr. Sushumna Kannan is teaches in the Dept. of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. She is Senior Book Reviews Editor at Jaggery Lit.