Amina and Me, Part II

(Read Part I, “A Thousand Sighs: Memoir of a Hoax,” here.)

Last week, I posted about my brief interaction with Tom MacMaster, the man who posed as “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” Today, my publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt forwarded me the following email from someone purporting to be Mr. MacMaster. (I have deleted my publicist’s name from the correspondence.)

—– Original Message —–
From: Tom MacMaster (thomasjmacmaster@gmail.com)
To: (name deleted)
Sent: Tue Jun 21 01:50:34 2011
Subject: Minal Hajratwala

Dear (name deleted),

I am contacting you regarding a client of yours, Minal Hajratwala. On her website, she has posted information regarding me as well as copyrighted materials. Please advise her to remove all of these forthwith as, otherwise, I will be seeking legal action against her.

Thanks,
Tom MacMaster

My reply:

Dear Mr. MacMaster,

Since you have my email address, as is clear from your earlier email to me as “Amina,” you are welcome to correspond with me directly and say anything that you wish to say to me. My email address is also available through my website, which is where I am guessing you found my publicist’s email address in the first place, so the purpose of sending her this email is rather obscure to me.

I am sharing your email via my blog and with a few of journalists who have been covering your story. I will also be encouraging others to mirror my original blog post, including the PDF, in case for some reason my site needs to be taken down. In case a legal defense is needed, I feel quite confident that the blogosphere will volunteer its assistance.

Sincerely,

Minal Hajratwala

I received an immediate response via email:

from Tom MacMaster thomasjmacmaster@gmail.com
to Minal Hajratwala
cc (name deleted)
date Tue, Jun 21, 2011 at 8:37 PM
subject Re: Fw: Minal Hajratwala

Dear Minal Hajratwala,
Please note that the Amina Arraf gmail account has been destroyed as well as all correspondence sent there. I am currently in conversations with an attorney here as to potential libel cases as well as potential copyright violations.

I do not wish to start a flame war with you. I am not seeking further publicity, positive or negative, and wish you no ill. Hence, my request to delete those materials so as to avoid potential legal troubles for both of us.

Regards,
Tom MacMaster

For the moment I think I’ll refrain from further commentary; if this is indeed Mr. MacMaster, I have a feeling others will say everything that needs to be said about this. :)

I’m also open to the possibility that this is not from him, but from someone who is so irritated with him that they want to keep the story alive and make him look even worse than he does.

Want to help?

Here again is the PDF of the memoir draft that “Amina” had sent me, if anyone would like to upload it to their own site: A-Thousand-Sighs-Part-I.

All are welcome to mirror/repost my original blog post, in which I talk about how this suddenly newsworthy document first came to me, and share my impressions of it.

Legal advice, media query, something else? Please do feel free to comment below or contact me.

*

Post amended to add:

As I was writing this post, I realized that the original damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” has been taken down, which makes it difficult for anyone to see the level of deceit we’re talking about here. I was just sent a zip archive of that blog, which seems to include everything except the last two entries (in which Tom MacMaster came out as, and then apologized for, Amina). I believe strongly that the blog as it appeared remains an important part of the public dialogue. For that reason, with the permission of the person who sent it to me, I am posting the zip archive. Click here to download it..

I’ve been told it’s a good idea to have multiple mirror sites in case this one gets taken down. That’s why I’m asking people to feel free to upload any of these files to public sites or your own blogs. (Thanks to those who have already done so; see links in the comments below.) I’m not on a vendetta here, and in fact I’ve been far less involved in this issue than many other people. At this point I simply think it’s important to keep the public record public, and to live with your own mistakes — rather than trying to cover them up or to blame other people for pointing them out.

Today I moved


Reading my favorite beatnik Punjabi’s blog made me think of the ziplocs Rivka brought me this morning. She has moved continents twice and knew exactly where to buy them in the neighborhood (next to Twinkle at Kemps Corner, in case you need some too) so she volunteered to get some and bring them to me. This was so incredibly helpful that I felt moved by her generosity.

This is only symbolic of many other people helping me — S bringing her car from a distant suburb and agreeing to store several suitcases for me, V carrying a load up three flights of stairs, various people offering guestrooms and leads on apartments and so on.

Rivka brought 15 ziplocs each in 3 sizes:
• small for opened bottles of toiletries
• medium for some more of that kind of stuff — so boring I don’t even remember what it is
• large for packing clothes and papers to keep them from molding in the monsoon

This last was the most interesting to me, because new, and possibly futile.

I had lots of bags left over and felt greedy about giving them up, in case I need them again. So for now I am wealthy in ziplocs.

My moving-out and moving-on was rather sudden, precipitated by my landlord nonconsensually moving in with me and refusing to commit to a leaving date. Because of several complex factors (including whiskey, cocaine, entitlement, verbal diarrhea, and patriarchy) I did not wish to be his flatmate so I have been staying at yet another generous friend’s place while she has been out of town for the past several weeks. She is coming back, plus eventually it becomes ridiculous to pay rent for non-habitation, so I decided to stop clinging to the idea of what that place could have been for me, realize it was not actually being that, and leave.

It was kind of a tough decision but now that it’s done, I feel a sense of freedom and excitement and readiness to make another transition — I have just 7 more weeks in India, for now, so life is about to start moving very fast.

On Friday I will go to Bangalore … also a rather quick decision and a great one. It feels like an awesome time to embrace spontaneity. I am totally a planner and list-maker, so although from the outside it might look like I do big things suddenly, actually usually I do tons of planning ahead. Not so right now.

I suspect the monsoon as well as the phenomenon of three eclipses within six weeks (last one coming up July 1) is contributing to my newfound semi-recklessness.

At the beginning of the rains I tried to not go out in the rain. It seemed wise since the lane that I could see from the window was like a little creek. However after three solid days of rain I had to reconsider that practice.

One evening after I talked with my landlord I had a lot of excess energy — too much even to channel into using all my new Hindi curse words — so I went for a brisk walk and got caught in a suddenly squall and got absolutely drenched and walked more and waded through puddles and stopped to eat momos and a brownie and walked back and it was rather wonderful. When I came in, I washed my feet.

Today was terribly hot and sticky while we were moving stuff, but not raining, which was lucky; but then it did rain suddenly; but then it stopped.

Wisdom O The Day: Trying to avoid the monsoon while it is actually happening is silly.

Someone told me this is actually pre-monsoon. “This is nothing yet,” she said. Other people had told the same about the summer heat — “This is nothing yet” — but then it didn’t get hotter. Now I hear it was a very mild summer: “That was nothing.” I am not sure what to make of all these narratives of nothingness.

I’m not sure this weather metaphor can really stretch any further but it is interesting to think about my calendar in terms of certain and uncertain periods right now.

• go to Bangalore June 24
• ??? back in Mumbai — stay with friends
• leave India August 7
• speak in Detroit to journalists about how to get a book published on August 12
• ??? do a fundraising event for DesiLit in Chicago ???
• speak at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on August 25 (my talk: “India and Her Fragments: Migrations from Old to New Worlds”)
• ??? 2 ½ months of some stuff ??? Work, apply for grants, write, ???
• return to India November 26
• ???

I suspect very interesting things will happen in the ??? periods. They always do.

Salla — who, as my temporary roommate obviously chosen by destiny, has witnessed all my decision-making contortions — always smiles very sweetly and says, “Yes, why not?” Then she says something very smart and insightful that helps me see what I’m doing or need to do.

The other night we watched a video of Judith Butler’s lecture on anarchism and Israel, and drank rum with nimbu paani, and looked at Google Maps Street View, zooming in on the closeups of her mum standing in the driveway of their home in Finland and of the apartment where I lived in San Francisco with my red Firebird parked in front of it.

I made a spreadsheet that shows me where I will be sleeping each night for the next 7 weeks. The dates I still need to confirm are marked in yellow. I named the document Monsoon Tour.xls.

Tomorrow I will pick up Nandi’s key and visit with her over lunch, go with Salla to her tailor to get my fabrics from Kutch stitched, and have Lata come over to give me a massage and a manicure and pedicure.

All is well or, as the theme song for “3 Idiots” has it, Aal Izz Well.

A Thousand Sighs: Memoir of a Hoax

Download Amina Abdullah Arraf’s fake memoir here: A Thousand Sighs- Part I.pdf

hr-3

On May 9, a friend of a friend sent an email to me and two other women writers asking if we would help a young lesbian, a Syrian American political blogger, to find a literary agent for her memoir. He pointed us toward this powerful post.

According to her blog, Amina Abdullah Arraf was on the run in Syria, he said. Though he’d never met her, this kind man was moved to try and help her.

We had a short email exchange in which I offered some standard publishing advice and named three agents who might be interested. I soon received the following email from aminaarraf@gmail.com :

Hi Minal,
I’ve attached a section of my book in progress … if you can forward
to [name deleted], I’d be very appreciative. You can also send her to
my blog: http://damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com/

I really have no idea at all about the business end of things …

Amina

The attached document was titled “A Thousand Sighs, and a Sigh: An Arab American Education.” I skimmed it, found it rambling and in need of a lot of work, and did not forward it to the agent — probably the best decision I made in this whole process. Instead I offered some editorial feedback via my friend’s friend, and did not hear back.

Last week, when I saw the story that Amina had been abducted, I wrote an email to Lambda Literary, the queer writers’ organization. I suggested that the organization get involved in some effort to assist Amina and offered my help.

As the whole world knows today, there is no Amina. Countless people, moved by compassion, wasted much more time and energy than I did on a spectre.

This spectre was more than a cynical act of manipulation, however.

Amina was an idealized projection, the white man’s fantasy of an oppressed yet courageous Arab women. Bright, reckless, courageous, American, fighting patriarchy and Islamic repression at once: She was the perfect superhero, the perfect wet dream.

It is ironic that the hoaxster, in his mea culpa, says he wanted to contest “the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.”

For that is the very genre in which he chose to express his literary pretensions. By inventing this persona, creating an elaborate blog, and — apparently — intending to pursue book publication, Tom MacMaster was well on his way to pioneering “new forms of liberal Orientalism.”

Today I have read the autobiography much more carefully than I did the first time. The faked lesbian sex scenes turn my stomach. The narcissistic writing, the sprinkling of quotations from the Qu’ran and tidbits from Syrian history, the stock stories compiled from a thousand news clippings — it all seems painfully obvious.

So I find myself among the countless people — among them journalists for many (though not all) of the world’s most respected news organizations — who today are kicking themselves for believing, and trying to help.

Here are some excerpts from the memoir:

Of Amina’s ancestors, whose stories are told in long passages of pseudo-fantasy-novel style:

Now, Hajj Musa tried to take Nashqua to his bed for she enraptured him. She refused him, saying that, though she was a servant now, she had been born free in her own land and was of an ancient noble lineage; if he would have her, he would need first to ask for her hand and do all things properly. She was no slave and would be no man’s doxy.

Amina as a child, while her family is fleeing Syria:

“I ask, is America near the sea? I’d like to see the sea …”
“Yes, you will see the sea …”

Growing up in the United States, a perfect model minority girl:

I was almost always the first one done with tests, the one who had her hand up first with the answers and so on. (If you’ve ever seen the Simpsons, I was a lot like Lisa though with less self-confidence.) I took standardized tests and did ridiculously well on them (I’m still more than a little embarrassed about my listed IQ).

Her first crush on a woman (white, of course):

The whole time, I was noticing how mature and pretty she was; long, wavy golden hair tied up in a bun, bright blue eyes, an almost pinkish face and a woman’s body, just the way that I wished that I looked.

An exchange with her father, during her adolescence:

“Remember, Amina,” he sent [SIC], waving a finger, “if the young man and the young woman are alone together, the Shaitan makes three!”
“Yes, dad,” I nodded. “No Shaitan, I got it.”

When she realizes she is a lesbian:

I couldn’t help but think of myself as evil, foul, a sinner, and a corrupter …

And it goes on.

A thousand sighs, indeed.

“The Joy of Life”

Last weekend I introduced a retrospective of Jenni Olson’s films at Kashish, the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. Below is a slightly spruced-up version of what I said.

*

Good afternoon, thank you for coming. I feel honored to have been asked to introduce this program of films, “The Streets of San Francisco,” set in my beautiful hometown.

With this retrospective, Kashish honors both Jenni Olson’s vision as a filmmaker and her longtime contribution and commitment to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender film community. She has been an instrumental figure in the United States in creating organizations and infrastructure for queer culture. While still a student back in 1986, she founded an LGBT film festival at her university campus. She later became co-director of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and was a co-founder of the website PlanetOut.com, as well as of the queer gathering at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s now director of e-commerce at the world’s largest exclusive distributor of gay and lesbian films. The books she has authored are both critical to documenting and preserving queer film culture: The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video and The Queer Movie Poster Book.

Creatively, Jenni Olson’s first films were documentary feature-length films that compiled vintage movie trailers with queer content. The first one was called Homo Promo and the latest is Bride of Trailer Camp. We aren’t showing these films today, but you can see some very entertaining samples on her website, www.butch.org.

Today’s program begins with a few shorts in which you see her signature style develop. The main feature is a documentary called “The Joy of Life,” and here is where we see Jenni Olson’s unique vision as a filmmaker really emerge. I think of it less as a movie, with lots of action and naacha gaana [song and dance] going on—in fact there are almost no people in it— and almost more like a photo album with a story. It reminds me of sitting in someone’s living room in San Francisco, looking out the bay windows, having several cups of tea and listening to a friend talk about what’s going on with her: “Well, you know, there’s this girl … It’s been kind of hard …” [here the Kashish audience laughed].

“The Joy of Life” has three parts. The first is an apparently meandering story about queer relationships narrated by Harry (Harriet) Dodge, who is another key figure in American queer culture. Then there is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco poet of the Beat generation, about the city, which acts as a sort of bridge. And then there is the story of the Golden Gate Bridge, where more than 30 people a year jump to their deaths every year.

This film was quite influential, along with another film (“The Bridge” by Eric Steel) that came out soon afterward, in getting the bureaucracy in charge of the bridge to reconsider the safety of the bridge. I can speak more about that afterward during the q&a if you’re interested.

Jenni Olson made this film after her co-director at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Mark Finch, killed himself by jumping off the bridge. In my perception, linking queerness and suicide is very much at the heart of this project, but in a very subtle, never didactic way.

Last night I had a chance to touch base (thanks, Facebook!) with Jenni Olson and asked her if she wanted to share a few words with you. This is what she said:

I am honored to have my work included in such an important and prestigious film festival. I want to say Thank You in advance for your thoughtful attention to my unique cinematic approach — prioritizing urban landscapes and voiceover as my preferred method of storytelling. I hope you enjoy this meditative viewing experience and would love to hear your impressions if you want to look me up online at butch@butch.org!

With that, please relax and enjoy the film.
*

Here is the official film trailer. You can read more about “The Joy of Life” here or buy it here.

Call for Submissions: Queer Indian Stories

I’m very excited to be editing a new anthology of contemporary LGBT writings in India. The first deadline for queries from writers will be March 15. Please do share with anyone you think might be interested — writers, communities, listserves, etc.!

Queer Ink announces

An Invitation to Writers

to submit to

The Queer Ink Anthology:
Contemporary LGBT Stories of India

Queer Ink, India’s first online bookstore (www.Queer-Ink.com) for everything queer, seeks YOUR stories for an exciting new anthology of diverse, contemporary LGBT/queer stories.

Building on the work of other groundbreaking historical anthologies, we are seeking dynamic stories of people living in India today who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, hijra, kothi, queer, genderqueer, or other gender-non-conforming identities.

Stories may be fiction or nonfiction.  Writers may be of any gender identity as long as the story features a primary character who is queer.  Rural or urban, gritty or sunny, Mills & Boon or Midnight’s Children — all writing styles and experiences are invited.  Diaspora writings are also welcome as long as there is a strong connection to India in the main character’s life. Excerpts from longer works (novels, memoirs) are welcome but must be able to stand alone.

We will be seeking a mix of established and emerging writers. A panel of editors/curators led by Minal Hajratwala (award-winning author of Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents) will select the stories.

We welcome regional language submissions and, for selected stories, will work with authors and translators to create English versions. The anthology will be in English. 

All accepted stories will go through a professional editing process in which writers will retain ultimate control of story content.

Writers will be paid 1,000 rupees per story plus two copies of the anthology.

Guidelines for Submission

Please email anthology@queer-ink.com no later than March 15, 2011, with the following:

• 200-word description (synopsis) of your story. (This description should be in English and state the language of the original story, if other than English.)
• Your name*
• Your pen name, for publication purposes, if different
• Email address
• Phone number
• City, state, and country of current residence
• Brief biographical statement about you (1-2 sentences)

Our strong editorial preference is for unpublished works, but we will consider stories that have been published in a very small circulation publication or website, or a non-English publication. Please disclose any prior publications in your email.

(OPTIONAL)  If completed, you may also attach the full story. Please follow these guidelines closely:  Use a standard font, 12 point, double-spaced type.  Include the word count of your story on the first page.  On every page, please include your name (or pen name), story title, and page number.  Submit your story as a .doc or .rtf file — all other other file types will not be opened.

If you prefer to submit by mail, please send to: P.O Box 7623, Malad (W), Mumbai 400.064.

Mailed submissions must be postmarked by March 15, 2011.

We will contact you by April 1 if we are interested in seeing the full story.

Completed stories will be due by April 30, 2011.

*A NOTE ON ANONYMITY:
We welcome submissions by writers who prefer to use a different name in print.  If your story is selected, we will need your real name for legal purposes, including copyright and payments.  We will keep your name 100% confidential if you prefer.

Still have questions? Please email us at anthology @ queer-ink.com .

Chennai impressions


Chennai expanded my mind with sounds, possibilities, art! Some impressions:

*

Trying to ignore the loudspeaker right outside my hotel room, which backs onto a five-star hotel’s parking lot, booming with strings of numbers and letters called out to summon drivers when their passengers are ready to go somewhere.

*

Befriending the Brazilian ex-dancer who wears beautiful saris to the performances every day, who’s braving India for the first time, and who spent two hours in a rickshaw today because the driver couldn’t find where she wanted to go and she didn’t know how to direct him.

*

Admiring the strange, surreal costuming of the Kathakali drama. (Picture a man in green face paint, a large golden headdress, and a hoop skirt … yes, that’s the villain.)

*

Dreaming vividly … last night, being seated in a restaurant amid flowing rivers.

*

Feeling famous … getting recognized in public twice in one day, after this article appeared on page 2 of the Times of India Chennai edition.

*

Buying saris by myself for the very first time, from the very nice folks at Tulsi Silks in Mylapore.

*

Meeting S. Muthiah, the eminent South Indian historian, who told me Leaving India was the best book he’d read in the last three years. Who knew an 80-year-old gentleman could make me feel so warm & fuzzy?

*

Listening to Lydia, who was in town to perform at the All-India Whistling Convention, whistle a selection from Verdi’s Rigoletto.

*

Doing a fun conversation/reading at Full Circle Bookstore attended by a great audience of 50-60 people, including journalists, queer community, consulate friends, Fulbrighters, book group ladies, scholars, & readers with lovely, smart questions.

*

Eating a fabulous South Indian thali while talking with Sunil Menon, one of my activist heroes, a pioneer of HIV/queer organizing in India.

*

Immersing in a week of amazing performances in the annual dance and music festival … taking pages and pages of notes and feeling ideas for my novel flow … way more than I can possibly describe.

*

Inventing the chikku-lime smoothie, with the collaboration of the juice guy at the Music Academy canteen (and getting others to order it too). Recipe: 3-4 chikus, 2 sweet limes, 2 spoons sugar, yum!

*

Meeting old and new friends … chance encounters with people I know (a writer from Michigan, a dancer from San Francisco, an activist from Seattle) and beautiful new connections with people I met here.

*

Reading newspapers’ music reviews, realizing it would take me another lifetime or two to understand passages like: “As a contrast, he rendered ‘Ni Dayarada’ the Vasanthabhairavi raga kriti of Tyagaraja in durita kalam. The raga alapana of Shanmughapriya for the RTP was grand, with all its sangatis in place, karvais in style and akaara prayoga reminiscent of Semmangudi.” !!

*

Having a rickshaw driver explain to me that he’s really a Brahmin pandit who has written several books in Tamil about the nature of atman and brahman, and is studying Sanskrit, several verses of which he proceeded to recite to me.

*

Running into Shri Shanmuga Sundaran in a parking lot and being invited to “Amour,” his gorgeous bharatanatyam piece based on the sculptures of Auguste Rodin (who, I learned, was inspired by Indian sculpture and myth) … and sitting right behind the French ambassador at the performance.

*

All in all, this has been a most excellent week. And what’s strange is, I spent most of my first day in Chennai totally miserable.

I had just come from Kolkata, where I’d spent time with two good friends and traveled to the Sundarbans, an idyllic area where we spent our days on boats and our nights on an island with no cars, minimal electricity, and extreme peace.

So when I arrived in Chennai on Monday, I was feeling that I didn’t really know anyone here, I couldn’t speak the language, my attempts to organize get-togethers and introductions weren’t coming through, it was just one more giant city to learn to navigate, the hotel was too noisy, the one mosquito in my room was actually hordes of them, I would much rather be home — or at least in Mumbai where I’d been starting to feel grounded, instead of starting all over again — etc., etc.

I hunkered down for most of the day, playing around on the Internet and basically avoiding dealing, knowing the whole time that there were all these fabulous performances happening that I was missing because I was just so cranky … until around 4pm I got so hungry I just had to get dressed and leave the room.

And then I made a couple of Skype dates with friends at home, which made me feel better. And I got through on the phone to an acquaintance in Chennai, who said they were going to a certain evening performance too, and we agreed to meet. And the show was excellent, and the company even more so.

And the week just got better and better.

*Leaving India* goes to Beverly Hills

I was on a beach in Goa while my book received its fourth award — this one from Pen Center USA, a branch of the international writers’ organization, at the Beverly Hills Hotel last weekend. An L.A. blog covering the event mentioned me and Hugh Hefner in the same paragraph:

In Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s acceptance of the Research Nonfiction award on behalf of Minal Hajratwala, she reminded the audience that as we enjoyed our delectable cinnamon ice-cream, Arundhati Roy had received more threats for her work. Hugh Hefner echoed these sentiments in his very brief acceptance speech when he dedicated his award to Erwin Arnada, the former editor of the Indonesian version of Playboy who remains behind bars for publication of a non-nude Playboy issue.

Strange bedfellows!

Anyway, my friend Cecilia, an excellent writer herself, was kind enough to go, take photos, and send me an email about the glamorous event. With her permission, I’m sharing her report here.

hr-3


Hey Minal,

It was a great time last night at the PEN awards. I met some nice people, didn’t get to meet Hef, but here’s a picture of him:



I’m very bad at taking pix unless I’m in photographer mode, so here’s one of the chandelier in the reception room:



I didn’t get to see The Fonz, since he only came via video feed. But I did meet Lin Oliver and Amy Catanzano, the woman who won the Poetry award this year. I have the program and a small stack of books for you, if you want them — “This Lovely Life” by Vicki Forman, “The Pastoral Clinic” by Angela Garcia, and “The Dunderheads” by Paul Feischman.

AND of course, your award.



Which is beautiful and a nice, heavy glass. It’ll make a good paperweight and/or murder weapon, I’m sure.

The award presenter had a really hard time pronouncing your name. So I got up to the podium and just pronounced your name correctly and that got a good round or applause. And your speech got a good reception, too, a responsive and rapt audience — especially surprising for an awards ceremony that went past 11pm.

All in all a good evening. And now I have a copy of your book to read, which I’m excited about!

So, that’s the brief wrap-up. CONGRATS to you!! It really is great that your book and you are receiving the accolades you deserve!

xx
Cecilia

hr-3

Here’s the full list of award winners and the official event pictures/slideshow.

And, just to make this a *really* long blog entry, here’s the acceptance speech:

It’s a great honor to be recognized here among so many distinguished writers and thinkers. I’d like to thank my families, both given and chosen, without whom this book would not have been written.

I regret that I can’t be with you here tonight because I’m in Mumbai, India, where as it happens, the mission of PEN is incredibly relevant as right-wing politics are threatening the freedom of writers. In the past few weeks, Arundhati Roy has been subject to threats of jail time, and a mob has attacked her home. Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey has fallen prey to censorship and book-burning; on that matter, I hope you all will consider signing the PEN petition, which complements efforts by Indian activists to uphold freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.

Traveling as an American across the planet, I am deeply aware of the privileges we possess, and also how the work of authors worldwide is so very precious and so countercultural. We who write books –- these archaic objects that require hundreds of pages and hours of time to digest, let alone many years to write -– are always working against the dominant narrative. We are restoring complexity to topics which most of our culture and our media is devoted to oversimplifying.

In the United States, immigration is one such topic. We’ve just suffered through a political season in which, once again, immigration was invoked as a wedge issue.

Leaving India tells the story of my family of migrants, and the larger story of India’s diaspora, of how and why 30 million people migrated out of India all over the world over the past 100 years. Through this process, I came to find my home here in the great state of California, which has seen countless waves of migration in its young life. At each juncture, ordinary people and their representatives have had to decide what kind of California they want, and they have not always chosen well.

A hundred years ago, a Government report described people of India as “the most undesirable immigrant in the state,” absolutely “unfit for association with American people.” Barred from owning property. Turned back at the borders. Denied citizenship when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that “the common man” would “instinctively… reject the thought of assimilation” with “the Hindoo.” And for nearly fifty years, America’s borders were closed to Indians.

But history is cyclical, and everything changes. Just over a week ago, President Obama was in Mumbai forging new partnerships, promising to work hand in hand with the people of India, guided largely by some of the 1.7 million people of Indian descent who now live in the United States.

I’d like to thank Pen USA and the judges for recognizing the importance of these stories, the stories of migrants, and each of our personal and historical memories. Because, despite the rhetoric, it is our own intimate histories which add up to the real story, the complex story, the one we know in our bones to be true, which is that this land has been and will continue to be shaped by immigrants and the children of immigrants — with or without books to their names; with or without the right papers.

Thank you very much.

Award Roundup

Since not everyone is keeping track of my Facebook updates (I know! What’s up with that?), I thought I should do the right thing, marketing-wise, and write up a post about the accolades that my firstborn has been racking up.  Leaving India has won four awards and was shortlisted for a fourth.

Want to make a first-time author happy? Give her awards! Yes!

So (drumroll please) …

Asian American Writers Workshop

Nonfiction Winner

The Workshop in New York has been a kind of literary home for me, so getting this award kind of feels like being a homecoming queen. (Except without the teen drama.) Some of my first published poems appeared in Workshop anthologies and in the Asian Pacific American Journal that this organization published in its early years. My very first book tour was with other Workshop writers back in the 1990s when several anthologies were published by the Workshop. And some of my dearest friends are people I met there at readings and at writing workshops. My lovely agent Anna Ghosh picked up the award for me in New York on November 7. To see the judges’ comments and the list of finalists, including Arundhati Roy (!) and Bonnie Tsui, please click here.

Pen Center USA

Research Nonfiction Winner

This is a regional award of the “west of the Mississippi” center affiliated with PEN, a large international writers organization. A few years ago PEN USA split the nonfiction award into ‘research’ and ‘creative’ to respond to the surge in memoirs and other non-research-based nonfiction works.  The ceremony was held in Beverly Hills in November, and my friend Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee accepted the award on my behalf; click here for her account of the gala event, which included Hugh Hefner and The Fonz. Here’s the full list of winners.

California Book Award

Nonfiction Silver Medal

p1020062I was able to attend the lovely awards ceremony at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco with my parents. We were told that this year’s nonfiction contenders were so strong that jurors decided to bestow an additional silver medal.  The gold went to Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell); the other silver went to William T. Vollman (Imperial). Also in the running were Dave Eggers (Zeitoun) and Ray Raphael (Founders).
Full list of winners: here.
Audio of the awards ceremony and short speeches by all the winners: here (scroll to last item; my bit starts around 43 minutes in). I talked about today’s anti-immigrant backlash and its historical roots.

Lambda Literary

Bisexual Nonfiction

This is a national award from the largest LGBT literary organization in the United States. I posted my acceptance speech about why LGBT folks should care about immigrant rights here,  and Lambda published a nice interview with me here. The full list of winners in all the various Lammy categories is here.

Saroyan Prize

Nonfiction: Shortlist

The William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, at Stanford University, named Leaving India to its shortlist of 15 contenders for best nonfiction book published in 2009. Ultimately the winning book was The King of Vodka by Linda Himelstein.

Thanks so much, everyone, for cheering for Leaving India as it makes its way into the hands of readers.

Scared, but taking the plunge!

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, in which thousands of basically insane people attempt to write a novel-length manuscript in 30 days. That’s 50,000 words or an average of 1,667 words per day!

For a slow writer like me, that’s a helluva goal. So I’ve decided to give it a try!

I’m going to be traveling in November so I’m hoping to write a LOT in the first 10 days, not at all on my 2 airplane travel days, and then less on the remaining days. And maybe schedule in another 1-2 days off.

I’m still playing around with the math … does anyone have a handy NaNoWrMo algorithm or calculator that lets you play around with different ways of reaching 50,000?

Here’s a rough plan so far:

What do you think? Does that seem realistic, or at least somewhat possible? Advice?

Also, I’ve decided to give myself permission right now to totally, absolutely, completely “lose” — that is, fail to reach the 50,000 word goal. Having just moved halfway around the world, adapting to a new climate and culture, testing my language skills to the max, etc, I’m not feeling that I need to prove anything. I want to be able to be present for whatever’s going on in life, too. So if I end up not being able to write as much as all that, I figure I’ll at least have several thousand words through the effort, which is more than I’d probably produce otherwise. Hooray for productive failure!

Or, hey, the process could end up being totally exhilarating and exciting, and I could actually “win.” And of course, I do want to win. Who doesn’t want to win? :)

Either way, I hope to be able to establish a good rhythm of writing in my new environs… a pattern that will serve me well in the months to come.

I welcome enthusiastic messages, cheers, etc., especially mid-month when I know I’ll be most tempted to quit, because I’ll be on a beautiful beach in Goa!

If you’re a WriMo too, please find me as “minalh” on the NaNoWrMo website, so we can be writing buddies.