AAWW Award Winner Amitava Kumar: “I Want to Portray How Messed Up the World Is.”

Photo Credit: Preston Merchant

I love me a good book. But even more than that, I love me a good literary festival featuring some of my favorite authors. Tonight kicks off Page Starter 2011, the Asian American Literary Festival’s third annual event. The event, which concludes tomorrow, features literary darlings such as Junot Diaz and Teju Cole. And even more exciting for Sepia Mutiny, our very own Amitava Kumar will be honored as the winner of the Asian American Literary award for nonfiction for his book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. To celebrate, we turned the tables on this SM blogger and asked him some questions for a change.

What surprised you about the response to your last book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb?

That it won a prize?

No, actually, now that you ask, let me unburden myself. At the New York launch of the book, an academic friend, very political, a proper hater of the FBI, walked out after I had said something about how exasperating I had found talking to one of my subjects, someone who was convicted of terrorism. Was the man guilty of everything the government had charged? No. Was he a pathetic liar? Yes. Couldn’t both facts coexist?

Academics, so many of them, demand such purity! I hate it. As a writer, I want to portray how messed-up the world is. Also, if I could add: As a writer, I am so messed-up, and I don’t want to hide that either. Continue reading

The Philadelphia Inquirer Covers Indian Americans: Gets it 100% Right

Photo Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dear Editor Wischnowski,

I am writing today to thank you and the rest of The Philadelphia Inquirer team for your wonderful front-page coverage on the South Asian American community in the Sunday, July 3rd edition. The article titled “Indian population booming in Philadelphia area” certainly constitutes one of the finest pieces of research-driven feature-writing I have seen in quite some time. As one of the 477,586 Sunday readers of The Philadelphia Inquirer, I am thrilled to see that the third-oldest, eleventh-largest daily newspaper the United States continues to maintain its reputation as the Pulitzer Prize winning publication of its yore. With the advent of joke publications, such as The Onion, arriving in this town, it’s heartening to see some hard-hitting news in the Inquirer.

First and foremost, I would like to tip my hat to journalists Michael Matza and Joelle Farrell for their wonderful reporting. To echo the first quote in the article, “Stereotypes be damned.” Such breadth of interviewees! What segues! The software-developer. The dentist groom and the physician bride. The retired chemist. The civil engineer turned motel-owner. The managing partner. The real estate agent. And lest we grow too comfortable in our community’s affluence, the additional video on your website featuring the taxi driver. A moment of silence for this lone unskilled Indian American man who aspires to achieve the American dream. And a hat tip to you guys for featuring him! I bow to your benevolent reporting. Nick Kristof could learn something from you people. Continue reading


Last year, I joined Vivek, Ennis and Cicatrix at UNIFICATION, a fun, fantastic production brought about through the efforts of BROWNSTAR to commemorate India and Pakistan’s respective independence days. Will I be there again? You betcha. And you should come too.

From their press release:

The third annual UNIFICATION will again celebrate the end of colonial rule in South Asia while showcasing the talents of prominent and rising South Asian American performers. Beginning on August 14 and ending after midnight on August 15, UNIFICATION 2011 literally unites the Independence Days of the two most populous nations in South Asia, Pakistan and India, and serves as a demonstration for peace across the region.

Featuring performances by:
Bushra Rehman
Sunny Ali & the Kid
YaliniDream & Arooj Aftab with JenDog Lonewolf
Zerobridge Continue reading

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Q&A with Author Patrick French

In the past, I have tried and failed to complete books about India. They tend to make me yawn. But when Amitava gave me a copy of Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, I was immediately hooked. The book contains a generous sprinkling of humorous, well-executed anecdotes guaranteed to delight (and likely inflame some) readers. After I completed the book, I reached out to Mr. French, who was kind enough to entertain my questions.

Why India: A Portrait? Why not the story of Japan or China or any number of other countries? What about India fascinates you enough to dedicate close to 400 pages and over four years to covering the country? Because India is, objectively speaking, the most interesting country in the world at the moment – with the possible exception of the United States. I felt there was no current book which provides a snapshot of India as it is right now, at a time of great change, but which also placed the economics and politics in a historical context.

What challenges were there to writing “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”? Did you ever feel as if you had swallowed off more than you could chew? The book’s title is India: A Portrait. It’s a picture drawn from many angles, but it doesn’t seek to be comprehensive. For example: there’s not much about cricket, Bollywood, the north-east or music. That “intimate biography” line is an advertising slogan from one of the editions of the book. Yes, it’s an intimate piece of writing. It uses personal stories to communicate a larger history – for example by looking at Indira Gandhi’s death through the eyes of her assassin’s son, or at the Permit Raj through the experiences of a junior scion of a business dynasty.

Patrick French.JPG Continue reading

Q&A with Sachal Vasandani: “You Gotta Rock Out or Go Home”

sachal.jpgAfter hearing jazz vocalist Sachal Vasandani on NPR’s All Things Considered talk about his third album, Hi-Fly, I knew we had to feature him on SM. I mean, have you heard this kid’s swoon-worthy voice? It’s Tony Bennett meets Frank Sinatra meets Cole Porter. Thankfully, Vasandani graciously humored the questions of a jazz noob via a telephone interview.

Sachal Vasandani – Hi Fly – EPK from Mack Avenue on Vimeo.

Q: How often do people ask you, “What’s a young man doing singing such old music? Why jazz? Why not that pop, Justin Bieber-type stuff?”
A: [Laughs.] Well, nobody has ever asked me why I’m not Justin Bieber. There’s a lot of freedom and self-expression in jazz – that’s really what attracted me to it. I just saw the music video for that Katy Perry song, “Last Friday Night (TGIF)”. You have Katy Perry, Rebecca Black and then Kenny G is there, and they’re totally making fun of him. He’s the crazy old uncle sitting in the corner. That’s people’s impression of jazz – that it’s cheesy, corny, old and elitist. But jazz gives me the ability to explore soulfulness in a unique way. Everybody is looking to find ways to reach the soul – my particular avenue is jazz. Continue reading

Friday Poetry: Dilruba Ahmed

Dilruba.jpgThis past Saturday, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dilruba Ahmed, author of Dhaka Dust, a delightful collection of poetry that I read and re-read with great pleasure. I first encountered Ahmed’s work in the form of a powerful letter she wrote for the Asian American Literary Review, titled “To Agha Shahid Ali.” In it, she reacts to a statement made by the Kashmiri-American poet:

“I wish all this had not happened…This dividing of the country, the divisions between people–Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu–you can’t imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick.” Similarly, we may feel enraged, appalled, dismayed, and frustrated with recent events that emphasize those “divisions between people” here in America and around the world. And as writers, we may find ourselves wondering how to make sense of our impulse to write when other, larger matters seem far more pressing.

She goes on to respond to her own question: “If literature confronts us with our humanity, if it proves to us the shared desires and struggles of our individual lives, then literature, particularly writing by Asian Americans and other minorities, is arguably more important now than ever before.”

Agreed. And in the context of the mayhem that struck Mumbai this past week, even more poignant. Continue reading

Beth Goes to Bollywood!

If you are a student of Bollywood, you will have already found the blog Beth Loves Bollywood, which documents one superfan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the largest film industry in the world. There, Beth Watkins takes apart Bollywood (and other Indian) films with an academic zest that has enamored filmi fans everywhere. At the end of June, she joined thousands of superfans in Torotono, where she attended the International Film Academy Awards.

In her blog, Ms. Watkins fuses an academic’s eye for research with the infectious zeal of a “First Day First Show” devotee, as Indian fans who make it their aim to catch a movie’s very initial run are known. What she’s trying to do, she says, is provide the sort analysis and social commentary that she feels is largely missing from the current writing surrounding Bollywood. “I’m having fun with it, though,” she said.

Unlike many Bollywood bloggers, Ms. Watkins steers clear of feuding stars, and pesky baby bump rumors and announcements. “I’m not into gossip. I don’t care whether Aishwarya Rai gained a kilo or not,” she said. Her entries range from entertaining dissections of vintage Filmfare magazine spreads that she excavated from the depths of her university library, to witty reviews laced with an inventive lexicon. [Link.]

After living vicariously through Beth on Twitter as she navigated the IFAA world, I reached out to her about her love of all things filmi.

Best part of IFAA. Worst part? Best part was meeting some blog and Twitter friends in person, some of whom I’ve known online for years. Worst part was the behavior of other fans–mobbing the stars, asking completely inane questions, literally shoving to get closer to the red carpet, etc.

So did you finally get to see Rahul Khanna at IFAA? I know you’re a huge fan of his… Tragically no. I think he was busy with actual celebrities–as well as being in the fashion show, GQMF that he is.

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Desi Alert Part I: Kumail Nanjiani in Franklin & Bash

Kumail.jpgLast spring I wrote about Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American comedian slated to star in TNT’s new legal-comedy, Franklin & Bash. Amardeep first introduced us to him back in 2009 and Taz later wrote about his run-in with singer John Mayer. Well, the show finally aired this past spring and thanks to a law school classmate, I have been keeping a close eye on our friend Kumail, who plays Pindar Singh, a highly anxious agoraphobe whose research and writing skills make him invaluable to the “frat house bromance” that constitutes the firm of Jared Bash and Peter Franklin. Despite the show’s improbable legal scenarios, the fun-loving legal team of Franklin & Bash does manage to charm at times. And it looks like the ratings are fairly good for its Wednesday night slot. Then again, it may just be a fluke. Summer boredom and all that.

(Start watching at 3:50 to see Kumail talk about his new role.)

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Who are Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal?

Last night, prompted by a tweet from Angry Asian Man, I found myself finally watching the full-length Vincent Who? documentary that Taz blogged about (and appeared in) two years ago. I happened to be home and caught my little brother in an amenable mood, so we spent the next few hours watching first that and then the 1987 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin? It just so happened that we saw both documentaries on the very same date, 29 years ago, that Vincent Chin died. June 23.

Twenty-nine years ago, on June 19, the night before his wedding, Vincent Chin went with a few close friends to a strip-club in his town of Detroit, Michigan. There, an altercation occurred between Chin and two men. According to witnesses, Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler plant superintendent, told Chin, “It’s because of you little motherf*ckers that we’re out of work,” a reference to increasing pressure on the American automobile industry from Japanese manufacturers. Later that night, Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz, hunted down Chin and beat him viciously with a baseball bat. Nitz held Chin down, while Ebens administered the fatal blows on Chin’s skull. Before slipping into a coma that he never recovered from, friends say Chin whispered, “It’s not fair.” Continue reading