Uniting Desi Writers and Readers
There’s a growing movement of South Asian and diaspora writers and readers in America, and at its center is the group DesiLit. The executive director of DesiLit is Sri Lankan-American and Chicago-based writer, Dr. Mary Anne Mohanraj. Mohanraj is a professor of creative writing at Roosevelt University. Mohanraj’s books have been published by Random House, Penguin/Putnam, and Lethe Press. Her book Bodies in Motion was named a USA Today Notable Book, and was called "a moving reflection of culture" by the Boston Globe. Her short fiction and nonfiction have also been widely published in magazines and anthologies.
Did you write a lot as a child?
No. I was, however, a passionate reader. In grammar school, I spent many recess periods sitting on the steps and reading—usually fairy tales or science fiction. In the summers, my father would take me to the library on Saturday and drop me off for the day; by the time he picked me up, hours later, I had usually read several books and had a stack of 10 books ready to take home with me—all they would let me check out. I’d be done with them by Wednesday, and then wait impatiently for Saturday to come around again. Eventually, the librarians waived their limits and started letting me check out more books.
When did you start writing?
I started writing in college, around 1991, as a direct result of discovering the internet. I was reading the fiction newsgroups, and for the first time started reading stories by amateur writers—really bad stories, for the most part. I had never encountered such badly written stories before, and upon reading them, I realized for the first time that I could write better than that! (At the very least, I could spell.) I started writing stories and posting them on the newsgroups, and got a lot of nice e-mails from people who liked my work. Eventually (in 1995), I collected the stories onto my first web page.
After finishing my English degree from the University of Chicago, I followed my boyfriend Kevin to Philadelphia; he had gotten into grad school there. I got a job as a secretary to pay the rent, and found myself writing in the quiet times on the job. Mostly poetry at first, but then I turned back to fiction. I realized that if I liked writing enough to do it in my free time, then what would be really ideal would be to find a way to make a living as a writer. This was when I started calling myself a writer; I started sending out and sold a few poems and stories. I considered self-publishing a book, but luckily for me, a small press publisher offered to publish it for me instead—that became my first collection, Torn Shapes of Desire. I also began thinking about MFA programs to help me become a better writer, and in the fall of 1996, I moved to Oakland, Calif., to start an MFA at Mills College.
While at Mills, I primarily was writing fiction and nonfiction around sexuality and marriage, a fair bit of which I published in various anthologies and magazines. I also did a six-week writing intensive program at Clarion West in the summer of 1997, for science fiction and fantasy writing, which oddly, had the net effect of convincing me that at least at the moment, I was more interested in writing mainstream fiction. When I finished the degree at Mills, I thought that I was done with grad school, especially since the MFA was still considered the terminal degree in fiction writing at that point. But life surprised me.
I moved to Salt Lake City to join Kevin, who was doing a post-doc in mathematics there. I got a job adjuncting at the university, teaching composition, and ended up auditing a literary theory course, which I really enjoyed. As it turned out, Utah had one of the few (and one of the best) Ph.D. programs in creative writing, and at the end of the year, I applied, and was accepted there. It turned out to be the perfect program for me.
By that point (2000, and I was just turning 30), I was developing an interest in the intersection of ethnicity/race with sexuality and marriage, and the Ph.D. program was a wonderful opportunity for further research and study. I did an independent study in Sri Lankan history, and took post-colonial criticism, both of which were immensely helpful in my own writing. And of course, there were a ton of writing workshops, with very talented classmates and wise professors, all of which was hugely influential on the book I ended up writing for my dissertation—Bodies in Motion. Ph.D. programs in writing aren’t for everyone, but if you’re an analytical sort of writer, they can be tremendously helpful. And as a small bonus, they pay you (a little bit) to write your book (unlike most MFAs).
When did you start seeing the need and possibility to begin to create a community of South Asian writers and readers? Did this happen before you came to Chicago?
It started when my agent sold Bodies in Motion to HarperCollins, and I realized that I had no way to reach people who liked South Asian/diaspora literature. Coming out of sf/f [science fiction and fantasy] culture, that was deeply frustrating, because in sf/f there’s this huge network of conventions and online groups around the literature. Even better, those groups are primarily run by the readers—for every writer, there are hundreds of readers involved in putting on the conventions and other events, which seems ideal to me. Upon moving to Chicago I’d joined the local Asian American Artists’ Collective, which was a good start. But that was a large and amorphous group, covering a really broad range of ethnic groups and arts areas. It seemed like something much more focused would be of more use, and would also allow us to reach the readers in the area.
It might have made sense to only do a Chicago group, but I just tend to think more broadly than that. So after discussions with other local folks interested in the project, we created DesiLit as an international organization, hoping to serve South Asian and diaspora writers and readers across the globe. In Chicago we started with modest plans for a small reading series and a book club—events rather ballooned from there. People in other cities started contacting us and expressing interest in organizing their own chapters of DesiLit. We now have chapters in the Bay Area, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto. And I recently received an e-mail from a South Asian book club in Calgary interested in joining, which is very exciting. I hope someday we have chapters in South Asia as well—it’d be tremendous to have DesiLit Mumbai, or DesiLit Colombo.
What is the Kriti Festival?
The Kriti Festival is held in Chicago and celebrates South Asian and diaspora literature, with panel discussions, performances, music, storytelling for kids, and more.
How did Kriti come about?
A couple of years ago, DesiLit started planning a reading series. But we quickly realized that it would actually be easier to persuade writers to come to Chicago if they’d have the opportunity to also hear and talk to other writers themselves. So we picked a date, found a keynote speaker, and started planning the first Kriti. In the end, we had over 30 panelists—writers, editors, agents, publishers—and about 300 attendees (with a few hundred more attending Chitra Divakaruni’s keynote speech, given in conjunction with the Chicago Humanities Festival). Quite a few members of DesiLit Bay Area flew in for the festival, which was particularly satisfying for us. It was a tremendous success, and we’re looking forward to running it again in April of 2007 [April 26-29 in Chicago].
What do you have planned for Kriti 2007?
We have a lot of great events planned, including panel discussions, workshops, film screenings, art displays, and performances by the Rasaka Theatre Company and the musical groups Funkadesi and Maahaul. And we are really excited about our Guest of Honor, award-winning author Anita Desai. She’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize three times. (Her daughter, Kiran Desai, recently won the 2006 Booker Prize.) Anita Desai’s book In Custody was made into a Merchant Ivory film, starring Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, and Om Puri. It will truly be an honor for us to host her.
For more information about Mary Anne Mohanraj, go to www.mamohanraj.com
For more information about Kriti 2007 or DesiLit, go to www.desilit.org