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Diversity in publishing is under attack. I hear the sound of knuckles dragging

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below)

The furore over Penguin’s wise and brave decision to “reflect the diversity of British society” in its publishing and hiring output seems to have awoken the usual knuckle-dragging, semi-blind suspects with their endlessly repeated terrors and fears. They appear to believe that what is called “diversity” or “positive action” will lead to a dilution of their culture. Their stupidity and the sound of their pathetic whining would be funny if it weren’t so tragic for Britain. You might even want to call it a form of self-loathing; it is certainly unpatriotic and lacking in generosity.

The industries I’ve worked in for most of my life – film, TV, theatre, publishing – have all been more or less entirely dominated by white Oxbridge men, and they still mostly are. These men and their lackeys have been the beneficiaries of positive discrimination, to say the least, for centuries. The world has always been theirs, and they now believe they own it.

Some of us have been fortunate enough to force a way through the maze and make a living as artists. It was a difficult and often humiliating trip, I can tell you. There was much patronisation and many insults on the way, and they are still going on.

 

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Rescued from the footnotes of history: Lal Bihari Sharma’s “Holi Songs of Demerara”

MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh

These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.

In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.

It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.

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46 Books by women of colour to read in 2018

I’ve heard it argued that it’s been a banner year for books by women of color already: there’s Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 National Book Award, for one. It’s the first time the fiction prize has been conferred twice upon any black person or woman—thereby formally, prize-wise, placing Ward in the company of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. This year’s National Book Award ten-book fiction longlist featured six titles written by women of color; three out of five 2017 New York Public Library Young Lions finalists were women of color; and so on.

But there’s such a long way to go. Look, for instance, at the New York Times’s weekly “By the Book” section, in which, to a shameless extent, prominent men continue to suggest we just read still more men’s books. Consider the fact that, as recently as this May, Leonard Chang wrote about a novel of his that was rejected by big-house publishers for not being “Asian enough.” As one editor told him, critiquing his manuscript, “You have to think about ways to make these characters more ‘ethnic,’ more different…in the scene when [a character] looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.”

As it so happens, I’m Asian; I’m publishing my debut novel this summer, and my characters, much like me, don’t spend any time contemplating their slanted eyes. If that editor had read more widely in the first place, he might previously have recognized how limiting his stereotypes might be, and he could have broken free of the rigid confines of his own narrow mind. Perhaps it’s too late for him, but it’s not for us. Let’s read more broadly; let’s try inhabiting one another’s wildly varied, entirely human points of view. It’s late in 2017, and the situation’s desperate. If we can’t imagine one another, how will we get through these next few years?

I tried, I really did, to avoid mentioning our current president, but as wicked tyrants tend to do, he poisons every day. Still, since this is a forward-looking list, a joyful celebration of what’s to come, I want to glance past him. This, too, will pass. In honor of our next president, the 46th—whoever she, he, or they might be—I picked 46 splendid novels, memoirs, anthologies, and collections I’m anticipating. These writers are here, their 2018 books are coming, and look how glorious.

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2017: The year Asian-American writers broke into mainstream of US literary publishing

Led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong, this year has seen widespread praise for a variety of authors for bringing their stories about the immigrant experience to English reader.

After years on the peripheries of US fiction and poetry, Asian-American authors have stepped into the spotlight during 2017. Books by writers of East and Southeast Asian heritage led by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jenny Zhang and the poet Ocean Vuong are among the hottest trends this year.

It marks the emergence into the centre of the US literary world of a previously marginalised group.

Transcultural writers, born to immigrant parents in the US or immigrants themselves as children, are channelling their experiences into writing that, with perfect historical timing, challenges readers to resist attacks on immigrants’ rights and to see refugees as individuals with unique stories.

The experiences of displaced people are central to the work of this new generation of Asian-Americans, and their books cross genres and forms.

Vuong, who recently won the Forward prize for best first collection, arrived in the US as a refugee from Vietnam in 1990. His poems in Night Sky With Exit Wounds mix migration with myth and eroticism. His images stick in the reader’s mind and, though it is never said explicitly, feel as if they are etched in the memory of the young gay Asian man navigating the 21st-century US in subsequent poems.

The stories in Nguyen’s The Refugees are set in Vietnam and among refugee communities in California. The author disarms the reader, consistently complicating our sympathies. What came before and after the characters’ journeys across the Pacific pervade the collection. His book is dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere”.

The privileged twenty-somethings in Tony Tulathimutte’s satirical novel, Private Citizens , inhabit a different San Francisco tech scene in the 2000s – but like Nguyen’s characters, they’re alive to the nuances of Asian-American experience. Tulathimutte’s Thai-American protagonist, Will, is accused of being paranoid about racism, but he is clearly on to something as he witnesses the lives of Asians overlooked because, he says, “they’re outside the black-white binary”.

There is a thrilling and almost wild energy about Jenny Zhang’s long sentences in the connected stories of Sour Heart. The brutality of communist China is vividly remembered and the hardships of immigrant life graphically enumerated by young narrators, among them a girl who says: “Going to school in Little Neck was the only thing – short of spending eighty grand on a down payment for a new house, short of having hundreds of thousands of dollars for private tuition – that stood any chance of saving me from a life of misery, poverty and pain.”

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The Subversive New Generation of Asian American Writers

Real talk between writers Jenny Zhang, Tanwi Nandini Islam, and Karan Mahajan on race, writing, parents, sex, and the ongoing creation of the Asian American canon.

 

Asian American writers occupy a weirdly marginal space in American letters: a few successes, like Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan, go mainstream, but otherwise these are authors you read if you are interested in the “Asian American experience”; they haven’t achieved the universality, say, of Jewish American writing. Asian American writers are in a position analogous to that of Asian Americans themselves: salubrious but maybe inessential.

A new generation is challenging that. In 2008, Wesley Yang published an essay inn+1 about the Virginia Tech mass shooter; fierce, analytical, and dangerously confessional, it had a testy Naipaulian energy. Other nonfiction writers have come up concurrently or followed suit: Jay Caspian Kang, Hua Hsu, even provocateurs like Eddie Huang and Amy Chua. In fiction, Hanya Yanagihara, Ed Park, Jenny Zhang, Tao Lin, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Alice Sola Kim, Alexander Chee, and Tony Tulathimutte are renovating an ossified genre with outrageous and sometimes hypersexual scenarios. (Kang is a correspondent for VICE on HBO; Huang is the host of the VICELAND show Huang’s WorldLinIslamPark, and Tulathimutte are all occasional contributors to this website.) Zhang and Islam also exemplify a style of online confessional essay-writing that draws blood—and thousands of politicized readers.

To talk about all this, I Google-hanged with Zhang and Islam. They were in Williamsburg, and I was in Bangalore. Zhang, the author of the acclaimed poetry collections Dear Jenny, We Are All Find and HAGS, had just sold her first collection of stories to Random House (she’s a friend of mine from college). Islam’s debut novel, Bright Lines, was about to be the inaugural pick for the NYC Mayor’s Book Club. This being an Asian American story, parents were never far from the picture: Islam’s Bangladeshi American family weaved in and out of the background. “My mom keeps wanting to take a selfie with me,” she wrote at one point. The three of us talked about families, politics, and the cringes that come when your story is workshopped by a room of white writers.

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The Asian American Women Writers Who Are Going to Change the World

This past year of national chaos has often had me thinking, What if? What if, before this year, I’d spoken up more, given more, fought more? On the one hand, if I’d allocated the entirety of my waking hours toward canvassing for the side of political good, I still, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have prevented this year’s kakistocratic events. But if a thousand people like me had done more? Ten thousand?

What-if rue like this is mostly useless, but it can, at least, help lead to future action. Toward that end, I’ve felt heartened and inspired by the examples set forth by fellow writers — especially, at times, by politically outspoken Asian American women. It’s a demographic often expected to be relatively quiet, even docile; what’s more, we’re routinely labeled the so-called model minority, a hateful idea trying to press us into the service of white supremacy. It’s evil shit, and not-at-all-quiet exemplars abound, including Nayomi Munaweera, Celeste Ng, Vanessa Hua, Nicole Chung, Alice Sola Kim, Jarry Lee, Rachel Khong, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Aimee Phan, Vauhini Vara, Jenny Zhang, Karissa Chen, Mira Jacob, Kat Chow, Steph Cha, Kirstin Chen, Tracy O’Neill, Larissa Pham, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Suki Kim, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Sonya Larson, Shuchi Saraswat, Catherine Chung, Shanthi Sekaran, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Jia Tolentino, Hasanthika Sirisena, Nina McConigley, Krys Lee, Solmaz Sharif, Ru Freeman, Lisa Ko, Janice Lee, Katrina Dodson, Aja Gabel, Sonya Chung, Jade Chang, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, T. Kira Madden, and, and, and.

In this roundtable, I spoke with four such vocal women: V.V. Ganeshananthan, Porochista Khakpour, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Esmé Weijun Wang. They’re all versatile writers who frequently work across genres, splendid novelists who also write candid, powerful nonfiction, and who are brilliantly forthright about their political views. Here’s Ganeshananthan in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Margins about who gets to write what they don’t know, and her essay “The Politics of Grief” in Granta. Here’s Khakpour on writing as an Iranian American in Catapult, and her essay “How Can I Be a Refugee Twice?” in CNN. Nguyen wrote about being a refugee in Literary Hub, and, along with Karissa Chen and Celeste Ng, published a rap-battle response to Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Finally, take a look at Wang in Buzzfeed about the “good” schizophrenic, and in The Believer about metaphors of mental illness.

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Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

By Monica Arora

Exit WestTitle: Exit West

Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 229
Price: ₹ 599

To Buy

Mohsin Hamid weaves a compelling saga of love, loss, identity-crises, immigration, personal and worldly conflicts and much more in his latest book Exit West. Set in “a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”, it could be an allegory of any nation such as Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or another, perched precariously at the brink of civil war yet discovering pockets of peaceful life whilst turmoil lurks nearby. The story revolves around the protagonists Saeed and Nadia, and the reader gets instantly drawn into their world when they meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding” and eventually end up having coffee followed by a Chinese dinner and start the process of getting to discover each other.

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LiterASIAN, North America’s First Asian Literature Festival, Celebrates Asian Canadian Culture, History, Storytelling

On the weekend of September 21, the streets of Chinatown will play host to a literary feast. On the menu is a collection of stories exploring the Canadian experience. Yet this isn’t the stereotypical western spread — attendees will be diving into an often-untold side of Canadian culture and history: the Asian Canadian experience.

LiterASIAN, an annual festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian writing, is the first Asian literature festival in North America. Founded by the late Jim Wong-Chu — his 1986 poetry book, Chinatown Ghosts, was one of the first published by an Asian Canadian — the four day-long festival is packed with panel discussions, workshops, and a variety of book launches from acclaimed writers like Jen Sookfong Lee.

“LiterASIAN is a grassroots festival that celebrates Canadian diversity,” says co-founder and Festival Director Allan Cho. “For a long time, literature has presented the Canadian experience as the British experience. This means that many of us have not seen the other side of Canada. Part of the festival is to showcase unique stories, stories that find their inspiration in Chinatown, Japantown, and Little India. It intends to give a full-bodied Canadian experience.”

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I’m Indian. Can I Write Black Characters?

“The debate about whether writers should create worlds and characters based in cultures other than their own is an important one.”

In retrospect, it seems incredible I didn’t anticipate the questions.

My seventh novel, “Everybody’s Son” — about an affluent white couple, their adopted black son, and his search for identity and reconciliation with his past — came to me in a flash of inspiration. I wrote the story in a white heat, in about four months.

So I was unprepared for what interviewers I spoke to about the book asked me: Why, and how, had I chosen to write from the perspective of an African-American protagonist? I hadn’t expected this line of inquiry to come up because, although race and racial identity are central preoccupations of the book, I saw Anton not just as a black character, but as a singular, distinctive character born of my imagination and efforts.

I soon realized I had been naïve. While I might define myself as an American writer, I grew up in India. That means, to many, I’ll always be an Indian-American writer, with all the freight that the hyphen carries.

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