New South Asian Fiction Writers in Guernica / Asian-American Literary Festival

Thumbnail image for Sirisena picture.jpg

I know the Mutiny community has lots of literature lovers, so I wanted to let you know about some sharp new writers, and where you can find them–Amitava Kumar and I have edited the fiction section of Guernica this month, and it features South Asian writers. Tomorrow, two of them (Tania James and Hasanthika Sirisena) will be joining us for a reading in Brooklyn as part of Page Turner – The Asian American Literary Festival. (There’s a day of great programming–we’re on at 3. Disclosure: Amitava and I are both on the board of AAWW, the sponsoring org.)

I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the writers a little bit more about the stories they submitted, and writing in general. Sirisena, who won a prestigious Rona Jaffe Award last year, gave us a story called Murder The Queen. You can read it here. She agreed to chat with the Mutiny–Preeta Samarasan will follow next week.

Sirisena’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Witness, Best New American Voices, and other publications.


Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of this story?


I came up with the idea after reading a story in a Sri Lankan newspaper about a young Sri Lankan in Malaysia who, along with his friends, made up a story about a kidnapping in order to con money from his mother. The story fascinated because, frankly, I was amazed at the callousness and the sheer stupidity of the people involved. Also, it happened at a time during which there was an extraordinary level of violence in Sri Lanka. Finally, I’ve been rereading Edgar Allan Poe off and on over the past year and was trying, as silly as it sounds, in some sense to channel him in this story.


I Googled, and I think I found the story. Ugh. Awful. You and I have talked about writing in different points of view–how was it to write from the perspective of someone callous and stupid? And were you thinking of any particular Poe story?


Ugh is right. I like writing from the point of view of people who do stupid things. I’m not sure why. It must tap into an anxiety of mine. I think its also the test of a writer–to use the imagination to explore and explicate acts that most people want to distance themselves from. Of course, a writer could take that too far. But I think its for the most part true.

I was thinking of all the things The Tell-Tale Heart and the Pit and Pendulum. Maybe more the latter, since it’s a story about captivity.


How often do you use real-life incidents to trigger your imagination? I know you were recently in Sri Lanka. How was your time there, and how did you go about gathering fictional material?


I use real-life incidents a lot these days. Honestly, I couldn’t make some of these things up! I enjoyed my time in Sri Lanka. I was there for the end of the war. My first evening there, the LTTE conducted an air strike on Colombo. By May, the war had officially ended. I gather material mostly by reading newspapers. I read any newspapers I can get my hands on. I read them from front to back. I read the police blotter. I also try to talk to people, even people on the street, but you have to be careful. It’s obvious I’m not Sri Lankan from my accent. People asked me a lot if I was Indian. It didn’t make people very willing to talk to me when they weren’t sure who I was–or might be.

This last line seems to me to segue pretty perfectly back into the questions of identify and security raised in Murder The Queen… So with that, I hope to see some of you tomorrow, and if not then, in our next installment, with Preeta.

Other work by Sirisena is online here. (This opens a PDF.)

(A and I wrote an editorial note for the issue, which may interest some of you. That’s here.)

20 thoughts on “New South Asian Fiction Writers in Guernica / Asian-American Literary Festival

  1. Why are all the women south Asian writers good looking? Is it because the level of good looks is high in the ABCD population? Or some kind of Katie Couric effect, where the level of writing needed to become a writer these days is not very high, and many good looking people want to become writers? Or because if you are not good looking you can’t get anywhere in the publishing world? Or maybe they have good photographers?

    As a contrast point, I doubt whether there is such a high proportion of good looking women in the open source community maintaining Linux. Assuming writing code and writing text are similar solitary affairs, there is some kind of Freakonomics type “Ever seen a Handsome Homeless?” thing going on here.

  2. As a contrast point, I doubt whether there is such a high proportion of good looking women in the open source community maintaining Linux.. Assuming writing code and writing text are similar solitary affairs, there is some kind of Freakonomics type “Ever seen a Handsome Homeless?” thing going on here.

    The writing of the text may be solitary (or it may be in a coffee shop), but writing literature requires an interest in and a knowledge of the human psyche. That, in turn, means you need to care about and be able to talk to people to be a good literary writer.

    Writing code, on the other hand, requires you to spend time thinking in abstractions and constructs that are far removed from emotions, intuitions, and other facets of how normal people think.

    Secondly, the women I have met who are coders tended to be pretty attractive. It’s just that I haven’t seen very many women in computer related fields in general. Meanwhile, just about every girl I met in college who didn’t major in biology fancied herself a budding writer, irrespective of how atrocious their writing actually was.

  3. writing literature requires an interest in and a knowledge of the human psyche. That, in turn, means you need to care about and be able to talk to people to be a good literary writer.

    Sure, but you can have an interest in the psyche, and talk to people, even if you are not good looking. Most male writers are not good looking, especially the good (and bygone) ones. Most women writers in regional languages are not good looking either. I find this surge of (wannabe) Clarice Lispectors in English puzzling.

    Writing in coffee shops is a recent, post-laptop, trend, I think. Most writing is solitary. Also, the raw material maybe emotions for the writers and abstractions for the coders, but there is a lot of similarity in the tedious process of structuring the material.

    As an aside, I agree with the author that some of the reality these days is a lot better than fiction, and very difficult to make up.

  4. Most male writers are not good looking, especially the good (and bygone) ones.

    I don’t know about that. Fitzgerald Hemingway Salinger Faulkner Lord Byron

    They may not have been male models or casanovas (except for Lord Byron who actually was), but they weren’t ugly. Maybe Dostoevsky was pretty intense and creepy looking, but he’s depressing even by the standards of Russian lit, so that’s not surprising.

  5. You mean South Asian fiction in English.

    The last couple of years have been a revelation to me. Writing in English gets so much press and attention that people automatically think the representative work is in English. It could not have been more false. Compared with the gems I keep running into as far as works in Bengali, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil (haven’t yet read much in Hindi, though they are lined up), I find writing in English from the subcontinent to be very self indulgent, mediocre, and largely junk, barring some exceptions. I feel ashamed and betrayed that I never heard of work in other languages, in contrast to the way every piece of junk in English was recommended to me.

    I see this title to be reflective of the attitude of the English speaking crowd—it doesn’t even occur to people that South Asian literature in English is only a poor cousin of its more vibrant, but completely and deliberately ignored body of work in Indian languages. This ignorance would have been at least semi-ok if you were doing comparable work, but the situation is more like saying a middle school student’s essay is representative of English literature. What is worse, the biggest problem facing literature in Indian languages is not one of talent or accomplishment—it is that no matter how good one is, they will be ignored—thanks to your attitude.

    Take off your colonial lens. If you think I am making a big deal about choice of words or am being needlessly hostile, think again. I buy that usage of language can have enormous impact the way people think—which is why I don’t use sexist or racist allusions. It is the same story here. Plus you do real damage to literature in other languages in order to prop yourself up—simply because you are the new brown sahibs.

  6. bytewords, these are all diaspora writers. They don’t write in subcontinental languages because they, their audiences, and publishers are not on the subcontinent.

  7. It is great that you are promoting asian Indian sub continntent writers…I just wished more attention was given to those who write in Indian Native languages…and if the new generation focused on learning to read and writr these their lives and understanding of true sepia culture would be enriched..I’ve just come back from India…by seeping ourselves only in English language literature we are losing a lot

  8. They don’t write in subcontinental languages because they, their audiences, and publishers are not on the subcontinent.

    My point is a little different—English writing is seen as the face of Indian writing—has there been one post here about non English writing? Not one in the last few years.

    Would you be so blase about it if someone ignored anyone but upper caste people, or ignored women using the excuse that that someone is upper caste and male? Why is it ok then to ignore voices in Indian languages giving the excuse that you speak only English? The point is that your financial power and clout gives English a lopsided advantage—so much so that even junk in English can trump over really good work in Indian languages.

    It upsets me greatly that there is no sense of ownership when it comes to Indian languages. Amazing talent is just passed over because those authors dont write in “white languages”. This has got to stop—I am not asking for affirmative action, I am just asking talent should be given its rightful due.

    Of course, I am not accusing you, Preston, personally. I just used “you” as a placeholder above—I apologize.

  9. I think you make excellent points, bytewords, but Sepia Mutiny and its readership are English-speakers in the diaspora. I don’t think this is a matter of being blase or ignoring Indian literature written in languages other than English. How much such work is available to readers outside India? This is not an India-based blog. But I agree with you that it would be cool to have some posts about Indian literature in other languages — perhaps you could make some recommendations. Same to you, Wanderer. What good books are worthy of attention?

  10. I can let you in on the order in which I started reading—probably not the best order, but a plausible one. Most of my initial novels were in Kannada for convenience—it was my mother tongue, plus I could get those books easily from family based in Bengaluru.

    I started with Girish Karnad’s plays—Tughlaq, followed by Yayati (both in Kannada). Both of them are fairly acclaimed, and I liked both. Yayati requires some amount of familiarity with the Mahabharata to be fully appreciated. Translations into English are easily available, on Amazon as well—though something is lost in translation to English. Translations to Indian languages are also widely available on online book stores based in India, and these translations are of good quality.

    Modern Kannada literature has always had a liberal bent, but some exceptional authors have a different political leaning as well. They are not exactly conservative though, and their style is different too—a more minimalistic literary presentation. My starting point for these authors (due to ease of availability), was SL Bhyrappa—Saakshi, Vamsavriksha, Parva and Daatu are all available in several translations—all four are in Kannada.

    What I am doing now is to read through some of the short listed books/winners for Akademi/Jnanapith awards—all books are available in several Indian languages with good translations, though not always in English. Recent awardees which I intend to get my hands on are Rehman Rahi’s Siyah Rud jearen Man (Kashmiri), Indira Goswami’s Chinnamastar Manuhtu (Assamese), and Srinivas Vaidya’s Halla Bantu Halla (Kannada).

  11. Re: availability—they are not as convenient to obtain as English books, but it isn’t too hard either (something I didn’t know as well when I started to procure these books). Search for a title on google, and you will find several online bookstores based in India that sell these. You will pay a small shipping fee, but the books are usually very good quality (hardcover in many cases) and a majority of merchants are reliable.

  12. bytewords: I’ve no doubt whatsoever that there’s much excellent work being done in Indian languages. But English is the one language that all readers of this blog are guaranteed to have in common, since this blog is in English. An amazing novel in Kannada, however amazing, will be inaccessible to all but Kannada readers here unless it’s been translated; ditto ditto for work in any other language. You’re lucky that you can read English and Bengali and Marathi and Kannada and Hindi, but I will venture to say that that puts you in a minority here. And as Preston has pointed out twice, this blog is not about or for India; it’s about and for the South Asian diaspora.

    Frankly, I think it’s unfair, even offensive, to accuse this blog — or people of Indian descent who write in English — of having a “colonial lens” or being “the new brown sahibs.” You’re implying that literature in Indian languages is more authentic and more worthwhile than literature in English by people who happen to be of Indian descent. But why should biology decide what language a person writes in? Why must brown writers alone be limited by “ancestry”? I often transplant these chauvinistic arguments — and there are many — to America or the UK to demonstrate just how ridiculous they are. So is Philip Roth a traitor to the Jewish race for not writing in Biblical Hebrew? Perhaps Toni Morrison’s work is just a pale imitation of the much better writing of contemporary Igbo writers? Should the New Yorker remove its colonial lens and shun Alice Munro in favour of contemporary Gaelic writing (yes, the New Yorker is in English, but so what? I’m sure some very good contemporary Gaelic writing has been translated into English). I’m just making these two up, by the way — I don’t even know what Munro’s and Morrison’s “ancestral” languages are — that in itself should tell you something.

    I don’t know the family histories of the other writers in this issue of Guernica, but I can tell you that my family hasn’t lived in India for a hundred years, and that I studied Malay, not any Indian language, as my “national language” at school. So this dichotomy you’ve set up — English vs. “Indian languages” — is a false one in much of the diaspora, anyway.

    This is such a disheartening discussion thread — thank you, Preston, for trying to hold the fort, but I wish someone who’s actually read the story would say something, instead of the usual tired comments about how attractive the author is and whether she is or isn’t “authentically” South Asian.

  13. But why should biology decide what language a person writes in?

    Culture does influence what language you write in. As does your intended audience. What kind of audience do you reckon someone writing in English is shooting for versus someone writing in Kannada? If you’re Indian and you think in English you are automatically disconnected from the vast majority of Indians. Now that’s fine, as long as you don’t presume to speak for them through your writing. I’m looking at stuff like White Tiger here.

  14. I don’t think writers “shoot for” audience and then make language choices based on that decision. Writers just write in the language that suits them best.

    Lost in this discussion is the impact that Indian writers in English have had on English as a literary language. Writers like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy have woven strands of subcontinental English, colored by the streets of Mumbai, London, the Kerala backwaters, Shakespeare, Indian Government documents, film dialogue, Doordarshan, etc. Roy’s book is peppered with Malayalam, too. Rushdie is a diaspora writer; Roy is not. The point is that the literary English here is a hybrid, and world literature is richer for it.

    I thought “White Tiger” was a strange book, channeling Holden Caufield and Raskolnikov. But why not? It’s just one book. I liked “Between the Assassinations” better because it seemed a little more grounded. Is it more “authentic” because it is set in a fictional village and makes reference to historical events and is not the monologue of curiously literate murderer? Should Adiga write in Tamil or Telugu just because he speaks them?

  15. Hi Preston

    I take all point made from 8 to 15 on board…they are all valid.

    That said the river can flow the other way. A Diaspora born guy called Roop Dhillon ( Rupinderpal Dhillon) who was raised 100% with English, in a family that left India 5 decades ago taught himself Punjabi and wrote in it for both the Diaspora and Indian audience!

    There are many of these translated into English as Well

    In my next post I’ll list them for you

  16. Hey Preston

    Here you go

    Neela Noor By Roop Dhillon ( Punjabi) Annexation ( by the same, but translated in English, extracts available on the web, but not sure how good) Loona By Shiv Kumar Batalvi ( Available in English) Pinjar – The Skeleton By Amrita Preetum ( again available in English) Paavitar Paapi by Nanak Singh ( as above) Anything by Amarjit Chandan ( as above, but see below as well) Devdas by SaratChandra Chaterjee ( Bengali) Ponniyin selvan By Kalki ( Tamil) Dhanpat Rai Munshi By Premchand (Hindi) Kavve aur Kala Paani By Nirmal Verma ( Hindi) Jugtu By Sadhu Binning ( Punjabi) Heer By Waris Shah ( available in English)

    Amarjit Chandan has won many awards including the one below

  17. Maybe someone should review a writer who writes in a native Indian language, then tell us about them in English?

  18. Hi all. Thanks to Preston and Preeta especially, who in my time on the road have responded much as I would have.

    If you read the editor’s note—or, heck, anything I put in the post! or the issue!—you can see that I have real questions about the categorization of so-called ethnic literature, and that these writers are not held up as “representative,” per se; in fact, that’s one of the issues we raise. That said, I was extremely proud to be able to highlight these folks on the basis of their being very, very good! To set that up in a false dichotomy vs. other writers is unnecessary, unproductive, and frankly, unhelpful to either “set” of writers.

    I hope that some of you have taken the time to read Sirisena’s work, which is, after all, the point of this post; she’s an incredibly talented writer and I’m happy to have been able to include her.