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Posts by elysdir

Writers, Jealousy and Lack of Room at the Table.

I suppose all of us at some point or the other even, if  just for a single moment, have felt the bite of jealousy, the teeth sinking into the thought of ‘well there goes that chance for me’.  Writers of Color  are often up against agents and editors who say ‘ we’ve already got an author from (fill in your South Asian, or other, country of choice), a book just like yours because there’s only one story that readers will be willing to read about this group, or can you set this novel in Iraq (or area of interest du jour). The following article is on jealousy when  there are limited  seats at the table (whether true or artificially sustained, I don’t know).

There’s an email waiting in my inbox from a friend. It has a simple one word title and an exclamation point. It reads: they’ve gotten a fellowship/are going on a writer’s retreat/are heading to a conference for rad activist folk! They’re excited, and there’s already a trail of ‘reply all’ responses saying “congratulations, you deserve it!” I half-smile, maybe even fire an email back, then navigate away. I’ll click through Facebook and see others have similar news – some putting the #humblebrag tactic to use and others open-faced. I finally stop scrolling and close my laptop to pick up my notebook. I feel the little tick in my brain, just a little one. It makes it harder to focus on my sentences. By then, I know it’s already too late. I tap my foot and clench my pen. The monster’s caught up with me. read rest here. 

To Write in English

Yes the British brought English to the Subcontinent. That was a while back. English here to  stay. And yet what does it mean to write our stories, our lives in English. What does it mean that for some of us English may be the only language we know while those of us with bi or multi lingual tongues choose to write in English. When a mother tells her daughter in Urdu ‘dimagh pigladeeyah’ and we need to transliterate this phrase into English and say ‘my brain is melting’, what is lost? Is anything gained? Is this just weird? Wrong?

The article and interview below probe the importance, or not, of English, the glass ceilings it can pose and how India is changing English.

How English Ruined Indian Literature by Aatish Taseer.

“English is not a language in India,” a friend once told me. “It is a class.” This friend, an aspiring Bollywood actor, knew firsthand what it meant to be from the wrong class. Absurd as it must sound, he was frequently denied work in the Hindi film industry for not knowing English. “They want you to walk in the door speaking English. Then if you switch to Hindi, they like it. Otherwise they say, ‘the look doesn’t fit.’ ” My friend, who comes from a small town in the Hindi-speaking north, knew very well why his look didn’t fit.” read here


Balchandra Nemade interview in by Devpriya Roy

“What is the metaphor you had used at the time that became so controversial – the footwear metaphor for English? Do you want to elaborate upon this?

It is a metaphor through which you can make these two different things – the different uses of language – meet. You walk through the gutters, the rain, dust and dirt – the world outside. You need different shoes for that purpose. When you enter your house though, you leave them outside. English is like that. You walk through the gutter by way of English, but don’t bring it to your kitchen.

When you are bilingual, each language must be assigned a function. When I go to a station or the airport, if I go to Assam or Bengal, I can’t carry Marathi with me. I will carry those shoes of English. But inside the house, where I don’t need those shoes, it must be Marathi. What is wrong with this?” read here

Happy New Year– books, streets, censorship and social media

Happy New Year Jaggery Readers. What a wonderful year this has been for books.  The end of books has long been predicted only to be unpredicted. The end of the year saw many Best of listicles: adult novels, YA and Middle grade, and non-fiction. And of course lots of essays and blog posts on reading, the state of reading, and why reading is the best think in the world year in and year out.

“Calcutta, my once and always city of books.”

Arunava Sinha takes the reader on a lovely journey through Calcutta, books and memory.

At the shop, the kindly, bespectacled, salesman pulls out picture books, ignoring my uncle’s instructions to produce fiction suitable for ten-year-olds. I’m eyeing the shiny new volumes of Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School novels, the world’s most marvellous school because it doesn’t even stay in the same place, moving around Europe from one year to the next. When the man behind the counter thrusts his choice beneath my nose, I look upwards at him and say, “Show me the books that my uncle asked you for.”  My personal history of Calcutta is a history of books. Browsing, buying, being. And, therefore, of bookshops. Calcutta, to me, is its bookshops. These are my memories as I time-travel through this Calcutta. I remember nothing but books and bookshops. read rest here


“Girls from Good Families Do Not Write Such Stories” 

Yours truly wrote an essay about being South Asian and writing about sexuality and overcoming, or not, societal and self-censorship.

I don’t know how or from where Iqbal’s books were acquired, but it was on those haphazardly stocked shelves that I discovered Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Sandra Harris’ The Nice Girl’s Handbook, and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. As I flipped through Sex and the Single Girl, I tried to ignore Iqbal’s genie’s glare, but the deeper his frown grew, the greater grew my fright that my mother would walk in and the genie would get me into trouble. When my mother did pop in to say it was time to leave, I hastily replaced the book and scuttled out without daring to look back.
read rest here


And in shop talk, Karen Karbo talks about the differences in success in ‘The World of Publishing: 1991 versus 2014′ 


…in 1991, the main job of a writer was to just write the next one. Publicity-wise, you were expected to be able to show up to a reading (arranged by your more charming publicist) and read from your own work in a manner that didn’t put people to sleep. You were expected to be socially awkward,possibly unkempt, and a little wild-eyed — bonus points awarded for not being falling down drunk.You were expected to be socially awkward, possibly unkempt, and a little wild-eyed — bonus points awarded for not being falling down drunk. After your book tour, whether large or small, you were expected to disappear into your scribe-cave.  read rest here


Three Op-Eds on Ferguson, Race and America

Sharbari Zohra Ahmed in The Daily Star

Michael was black and Darren Wilson is white, a baby faced cop, not much older probably than the person he killed. Wilson was questioned about his actions on that August day and made himself out to be the victim, even though he was the only one armed. He insisted he was the one in imminent danger at all times. He described Michael as a “demon”. He shot him six times and then left the body on the street for hours. There is a picture of Wilson standing over Michael’s dead body, looking down at him. Wilson has said in his official statement that he never stood over the body. The authorities have yet to ask him about the picture, or if they have, they have ascertained that this lie is not a big one. That this lie does not indicate that Officer Wilson is capable of telling other lies or spinning a yarn that places the blame squarely on Michael’s shoulders. Which is what he has appeared to have done, convincing a jury of his peers, nine white, three black (and all you need is nine jurors to make a final decision), that he should not be indicted. read rest here

Sonora Jha in The Seattle Times

WATCHING the nonstop coverage of Ferguson, Mo., after the news of a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown — and now a Staten Island grand jury’s non-indictment in the chokehold of Eric Garner — I couldn’t help thinking one thing over and over again. If even half as many black people were featured as commentators and experts on television the rest of the year the way they were being asked to comment on the riots last month, we might not have killings of people like Brown and Garner in the first place. read rest here

Jaya Sunderesh in The Aerogram

Though our struggles aren’t the same, we, as South Asian Americans, have every reason Though our struggles aren’t the same, we, as South Asian Americans, have every reason to support the African-American community at this support the African-American community at this time. We must work towards change, so that no black person ever again faces the experience of Michael Brown, gunned down by the police with their hands up, begging for their lives. This involves a commitment, by progressive South Asian Americans, to work towards change in our own communities so that we do not inadvertently work to reinforce antiblack racism in this country, which is at the root of the police brutality which murdered Michael Brown. read rest here


The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective Indiegogo Campaign

The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is the brain child of Shikha Malaviya, Minal Hajratwala, and Ellen Kombiyil, three poets who met in Bangalore, India, in 2013, and decided to found a mentorship model collective literary press. The Collective aims to publish new & emerging Indian poets, on the basis of manuscript merit, mentor them through the publishing process from A to Z, and then train them to eventually become mentors themselves. In addition to publishing books, The Collective also gives poetry workshops, organizes readings, develops poetry curriculums rooted in Indian poetic traditions & much more. They’re all about widening the dialogue on Indian poetry and bringing it out into the open.

So far the collective has published two titles, Geography of Tongues (December 2013/January 2014) & Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (November 2014). They hope to publish three more books in the coming year & will be releasing  inPoetry, a poetry app which will bring Indian poems in English to readers through their mobile phones, as well as designing an online poetry workshop.

In order to realize their goals, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective is now running an Indiegogo campaign. While India has influenced the world in music, film, fashion, philosophy, and countless other ways, her poets have not yet had the international platform they deserve. The Collective hopes to remedy this oversight and, through the power of social entrepreneurship and community, allow the verse of Indian poets to shine everywhere. Please consider being a patron of poetry & donating.

 To learn more, visit:


Kriti Festival 2014 and “Kriti Withdrawal.”

kriti posterMany literary conferences and festivals are so large that, by the time you get your bearings, it is time to go. Not so at Desilit’s Kriti Festival: The Midwest’s South Asian Literary Festival which was large enough to offer a bounty of panels and books and yet small enough to be accessible to all attendees. From the opening readings to guest of honor Manil’s Suri’s unforgettable presentation on his most recent novel ‘The City of Devi’, to a dizzying array of panel topics, Kriti Festival 2014 was one of those magical times where everyone was having such a great time– discussing books, attending panels and readings, making new friends, connecting with old ones– that going home was so sad an event many panelists  coined a new term for it: ‘Kriti Withdrawal’.  I was on six panels including  ‘Memoir & Essay: Telling True Stories’ (with Lopa Banerjee, Fawzia Mirza, Preston Merchant), Selling Your First Book (with Dipika Mukherjee, Sonali Dev, Nayomi Munaweera), the delightful romp that was ‘Sex and the Word’ (with Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rajdeep Paulus, Mina Khan and Sonali Dev) and I moderated the much more somber panel ‘Trauma and Memory in South Asian Literature’ (with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Nayomi Munaweera) in which we discussed novels about Sri Lanka’s civil war, the Kashmir conflict, and the Sikh Golden Temple Massacre and more.  I can still remember the days many many years ago when book shelves carried, if they would at all, Bharati Mukherjee, then Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and then Manil Suri, and so, to now be amongst so much South Asian talent be it poets, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, short stories writers, photographers, comedians and to see so much of their work and so many books being published and readily available is to arrive at a particularly wonderful station on this journey of South Asian American Literature. I returned home with a suitcase overflowing with memories and books and the knowledge that I belong to a lovely and warmhearted community of fellow writers, and that not only is Manil Suri a terrific storyteller but that he also possesses a wicked awesome sense of humor. Thank you Mary Anne Mohanraj and Neha Kumar for organizing Kriti and to all the sponsors. May you have many more.  Kriti Withdrawal. It’s real. Because for many many many of us Kriti was coming home.

Brown Girl compiles a list of Top Ten Quotes heard at Kriti

The Aerogram write up on Kriti Festival 2014.

Saris and Stories write up on KF 2014.



Interview with Abdullah Hussein author of the iconic novel ‘Weary Generations’

An interview with Abdullah Hussein, author of the classic Urdu novel ‘Udaas Naslein’ (Weary Generations) which spans the British Colonial times to Partition. Hussein is now in his eighties and has some very interesting ideas and firm beliefs.

“A sharif admi cannot become a real writer. Philandering is one of the virtues of great minds, not because it is a virtue in itself but in the sense that it breaks taboos and to be a good writer you need to break social taboos. To create is to negate the existing order.”

read rest here 

On Literary Festivals and V.S. Naipaul

As the Kriti Festival in Chigaco nears  no doubt all the artists and authors attending are thrilled to have this venue to share their work and thoughts through readings and panels. In many such Festivals panelists etc… are usually paid airfare and lodging and the Super Stars  (hierarchy, yes, there is) are also paid for their time. V.S. Naipaul recently asked the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to pay him more than they could afford, so he was dropped from  the roster. I don’t know who wins in this scenario because everyone seems to lose: the festival, the author, and the festival goers.

“The late cancellation of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul from next month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has exposed the fierce competition and delicate negotiations behind the flourishing international festival scene. Since Janet DeNeefe founded the festival 11 years ago as a healing response to the Bali bombings, the Australian-born restaurateur and writer has built a successful annual event that attracts almost 26,000 visitors to enjoy talks, performances and food amid Ubud’s hillside rice paddies, art galleries, temples and resorts.” read rest here


Letters from Indian Soldiers in WWI by David Omissi

In Indian Voices of the Great War, British historian David Omissi collected letters written during WWI by Indian soldiers. One soldier asks for charas, another for ladies shoes, and yet another for a flute not because he needs it but because he has ‘great longing for a flute to play’. The reader can only imagine his request for a musical intrument, for music, and what that means to him amidst trench warfare. One soldier writes about his four year abcense  and so allowing his wife to remarry according to vedic rites for the dignity of the family, another writes about the real reason he wants the ladies shoes which is not because he is having an affair, and yet another sends home a picture of an American female aviator so Indian women can see what they can aspire to.

Balwant Singh (Sikh) to Pandit Chet Ram (Amritsar, Punjab)

[Gurmukhi cipher]
FPO.39 [France?]
24th October 1915

The ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely. But contrary to the custom in our country they do not put their legs over the shoulders when they go with a man. [Deleted]


read letter excerpts in Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture 

Daisy Rockwell Interviews Amitava Kumar

Novelist, artist, translator Daisy Rockwell brings her many hats to her interview with the equally multi-hatted Amitava Kumar (though Rockwell does not open the ‘authenticity’ door 🙂

“In his new book A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna, author Amitava Kumar writes about his hometown, Patna, in Bihar, India. Not meant to be a comprehensive history, it’s a slim volume that attempts to capture not just the spirit of a city, but also Kumar’s ambivalent relationship to Patna, as an emigré with pangs of guilt for having left. I found the book was witty, thought-provoking, and eminently readable, but I still had many questions for the author, and so I contacted him for an interview, and he graciously accepted.

Your hometown of Patna, in India, is the kind of place that people want to leave, if they can, and have trouble feeling proud of. Is there an equivalent city or region in the United States that would help American readers get an idea of what Patna is like?

You remember what James Carville said about Pennsylvania? It has Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. When I heard that remark, I was living in State College, PA. At first I chuckled, and then I stopped. I began to wonder, if he’s saying this about State College, PA, what would he say about Patna.”

read rest here

* on an added note, I’m looking foward to reading Rockwell’s translation writer Upendranath Ashk’s short story collection “Hats and Doctors.”

Naipaul on Writing A House for Mr. Biswas

Love him or hate him, this is a poignant piece by V. S. Naipaul about what writing A House for Mr. Biswas meant to him.  (Published in 1983, but I think the sentiments are timeless…)

Of all my books A House for Mr. Biswas is the one closest to me. It is the most personal, created out of what I saw and felt as a child. It also contains, I believe, some of my funniest writing. I began as a comic writer and still consider myself one. In middle age now, I have no higher literary ambition than to write a piece of comedy that might complement or match this early book.

The book took three years to write. It felt like a career; and there was a short period, toward the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart. The labor ended; the book began to recede. And I found that I was unwilling to reenter the world I had created, unwilling to expose myself again to the emotions that lay below the comedy. I became nervous of the book. I haven’t read it since I passed the proofs in May 1961.

My first direct contact with the book since the proofreading came two years ago, in 1981. I was in Cyprus, in the house of a friend. Late one evening the radio was turned on, to the BBC World Service. I was expecting a news bulletin. Instead, an installment of my book was announced. The previous year the book had been serialized on the BBC in England as “A Book at Bedtime.” The serialization was now being repeated on the World Service. I listened. And in no time, though the installment was comic, though the book had inevitably been much abridged, and the linking words were not always mine, I was in tears, swamped by the emotions I had tried to shield myself from for twenty years.

Lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things,” the tears in things: to the feeling for the things written about—the passions and nerves of my early life—there was added a feeling for the time of the writing—the ambition, the tenacity, the innocence, My literary ambition had grown out of my early life; the two were intertwined; the tears were for a double innocence.

read rest here in the New York Review of Book.

Amitava Kumar on Writing in English

Amitava Kumar discusses the politics of writing in English as well as the desire, or need, to get published in the West rather than be content with getting published in India.

“I read the message from my friend and wondered whether Paul Auster had ever heard of Patna.

Although I hadn’t till then read anything by Auster, I now felt a connection. A couple summers ago, I saw a young woman on the beach reading The Invention of Solitude, and bought a copy the next day. When Auster’s memoir Report from the Interior came out last year, I again picked up a copy. Early in the book, there is mention of “the starving children in India.” Auster is describing a scene from his childhood. American mothers in the 1950s talked of half-naked, emaciated Indian children begging for food so that they could shame their own kids into finishing what was on their dinner-plates. This pleased me, but the memory was so general that it took on the character of a myth, which is what, in the end, it was. read rest here