If I thought I knew what 'radical hospitality' meant...

...I had another thought coming.

My very own cottage this weekend...Waterfall.

My very own cottage this weekend...Waterfall.

Ah, Hedgebrook. The very name gets me feeling like I am heading into the proverbial 'mother's home.' And how. I have just returned, not 30 minutes ago, from Hedgebrook Writers' Retreat on Whidbey Island. I am on the Board of Directors of Hedgebrook. This weekend was our annual board retreat. Apart from all those decisions about finances and annual events and strategic plans on the day's agenda, there was the biggest promise of all - staying all alone in one of those six spectacular, fairytale cottages that Hedgebrook awards to 40 women writers picked from thousands across the globe.

I was one of those 40 chosen writers, in 2009. I was awarded a month-long residency, which nourished me and nurtured me and nudged me to finish the first draft of my novel, Foreign. Hedgebrook gives you this beautiful cottage, and they feed you lavish meals with ingredients from their organic garden, and you meet these lovely writers, and you sleep whenever you like, and you put your post-it notes all over the cottage because it's your own and no one will ask you to explain what "kill that character or have them marry?" means, and you go for long walks in the 40-acre woods, and you read and you're glad that you don't have access to the Internet, and you build your own fire, and you feel like a Writer, and it's all free.

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That's what they mean by 'radical hospitality' at Hedgebrook. Yes. So that women's voices and women's stories and women's work can go out into the world. Because, as we know beyond doubt, the world is a better place for it.

But it was today, in the post-lunch stupor of a delicious meal, when I was settling in to some eyes-wide-open sort of slumber, you know the kind you're an expert at during afternoon meetings, that I realized the true meaning of radical hospitality. It is a hospitality of ideas. I can't reveal too much now, but we had a workshop and an education and a discussion that split everyone's thoughts wide open. A roomful of feminists, dedicated progressives, took on a brave conversation and wrestled with it and disagreed, and pushed and pulled, and at the end of it all, it struck us that some sort of history was being made and we were all part of it.

I had gone to Hedgebrook yesterday just to enjoy the view from that window bench and a good night's sleep on the loft bed and the fire that I would make in my cottage and the work I would do on the board. But now I know why I was there, why I had been invited to join the board, why I had gone to Hedgebrook all those years ago. 

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Because, if Hedgebrook's mission is 'Women Authoring Change,' which I think I did just a wee bit by writing my book there, it was time, now, as a member of the board, to be a woman who, along with others, is authorizing change. And if nothing changes, it would still be a change, a radical, deep one, because we simply spoke of change.

Stay tuned. We have much to celebrate.

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The Hindu Prize 2013: May The Best Book Win

In a few hours from now, I will get on a plane and head to India for the third time in six months. My fortune leaves me dazed (and jetlagged). This time, I am headed to Chennai on the invitation of The Hindu Lit For Life literary festival. My book - Foreign - has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013, along with four other books of literary fiction.

Of course, it would be nice to win. But it would be even nicer to know that I won because the judges (a formidable bunch!) were dogged about voting the best book. So, dear readers, may the best book win! Having said that, hey, is there really such a thing as the 'best' book? A book is only as good as its discerning readers. Yes?

All right, I must pack my bag. Chennai, here I come.

Disney's 'Frozen' : Why I Wanted To Applaud (And Why I Didn't)

Before anything else, view this song -

Thank you. I have watched this video at least six times since I watched Disney's latest film, "Frozen" last Thursday. Right from this snow queen's uphill climb on a snowy peak, to her unfettered sprint up that dazzling staircase of her own making to her heart-stopping declaration of "Here I stand..." with that mighty stamp of her foot and then her architectural flourish when she builds her towering palace of icicles and... can you tell that this whole song and sequence left me breathless?

Disney, take a bow. Despite a few gaffes, missteps and tired tropes, you have made a feminist film. Thank you for growing up, thank you for finally being cool.

This is a film whose central plot is a love story between two sisters. There's a parallel love story with a man, yes, (because that's OK sometimes), but that's not at the heart or at the climax of the film. The two women - Queen Elsa and Princess Anna - rescue men as much as they allow a man to rescue them, sure, every now and then, but not in the end. Also, one of these men is a cuddly little snowman. You see what I mean?

"Frozen" cuts to the heart of this thing called sovereignty, a special kind of independence that I believe any woman can embrace, no matter her "relationship status." In fact, how awesome is the emergence of Queen Elsa's sovereign sexuality when she's up there by herself in her palace, delighting in her own appearance that isn't for the benefit of another's gaze (except for the film's viewers, but then she shuts the door on us. Damn.)

Oh, and this film doesn't do that sickeningly tacky thing that films like the Sandra Bullock starrers 'The Proposal' and 'The Heat' or that one with Gerard Butler, 'The Ugly Truth' have done. If I were waiting for misogyny to come waltzing in on this screen, it didn't. There was no showing the queen that although she has broken the glass ceiling, she really must break an icicle or two to let a man in.

I don't like animated films. In fact, if it hadn't been for the fact that my 18-year-old son, my supreme movie buddy for our once-a-week trip to the movies, has returned from his first semester at college, I probably wouldn't have agreed to this film as our first one together in three months. Hayayo Miyazaki's animated features can enchant me some and there was this film a few years ago called The Triplets of Belleville whose visual power mesmerized me, and I have liked the writing in the Toy Story movies, but I really do prefer to watch humans on the screen. "Trust me," my son said. "I have heard that this film is unlike any other of its kind." I trust him. Also, heh heh, I had read somewhere that this film has some sparkling, innovative writing. It does. Trust me.

So, given my general sense of blah about cartoon characters, imagine my surprise when I felt an overwhelming urge, the second this song ended, to stand up and applaud in the theater. I had tears streaming down my face. I didn't give in to my heart's desire, because, well, it's a Disney film, and my son is a snarky 18-year-old and I want him to come back from college again next semester, and, well, I didn't want to people in the theater to think I was either ridiculously mushy or fiercely feminist.  

I realize now, though, that these are the precise reasons why I should have stood up and applauded. If nothing else, my already feminist boy would have learned that sometimes, in the shadows of a movie theater, this is what a feminist looks like.

 

 

Things We Said Today (At The Times of India Literary Carnival)

I just returned to my hotel room after a breakfast conversation with Akhil Sharma, an author whose stories I had read in the New Yorker, and whose novels I read up on before I interviewed him on a panel at The Times of India Literary Carnival, which ended last night. If there has been one treasure I have found at The Times of India Literary Carnival in these past three days, it has been Akhil, who lives in the United States, but whom I met for the first time here, two days ago, in Mumbai.

So, in the middle of our conversation on slavery, classism, and the women, men, and politics of India, imagine my overwhelming rush of emotions when he said to me, with the frank and quiet honesty only introverts are capable of: "In my younger years, I didn't feel as much gratitude as I feel at this point of my life. And I want you to know that I feel grateful to have met you."

I am terrible at networking. So, I forgot to go meet that high-end publisher that I should have talked to. I forgot to follow up on that interview a journalist wanted to do with me. I totally forgot to talk to award winning authors about how much I admire their work. I forgot to get a photograph with Eve Ensler.

Because, like Akhil Sharma, as I grow older, I gravitate toward moments of gratitude, toward unplanned meetings with people who make me richer, toward undocumented celebrations of the unnoticed kind. Needless to say, none of these made the papers in all the coverage of this literary festival.

Moderating a panel on the craft of writing, with (from L to R) Shovon Chowdhury (A Competent Authority), Vikas Swarup (Q&A/Slumdog Millionnaire), and Akhil Sharma (The Obedient Father, Family Life).

Moderating a panel on the craft of writing, with (from L to R) Shovon Chowdhury (A Competent Authority), Vikas Swarup (Q&A/Slumdog Millionnaire), and Akhil Sharma (The Obedient Father, Family Life).

Yes, Sharma was a find. At a particular moment on the panel on which I was interviewing him, tears welled up in my eyes as he described an experience with a woman in an elevator, who called upon him for a kindness he felt too busy to give, but in asking, set him free into a bigger world. Yes, that's how I feel about writing about the human condition. He said it better. He said it for me. As I turned back to the audience, my sister caught my teary eye and quickly shook her head. I blinked my eyes and hid the tears. Moderators don't cry.

Other moments -

Speaking on a panel on writing about and living out marriage. With Madhu Jain, Nandini Krishnan (not in photo) and Fahad Samar. 

Speaking on a panel on writing about and living out marriage. With Madhu Jain, Nandini Krishnan (not in photo) and Fahad Samar. 

  • After a panel on which I spoke on marriage, a woman came up to me and said that I had made things clearer for her. She could barely speak English but both of us knew we had a shared clarity. She didn't seem to have the money to buy my book, but she wanted me to sign a piece of paper she held out to me. My first ever 'autograph.' For all the best reasons.
  • Eve Ensler. Her keynote speech had me fighting for breath and breathing easier at the same time.
  • My sister Chandni Jha, one of the kindest human beings I know, did this - A teenaged boy had come to listen to the panel I was moderating. He said he was so taken by my work on that panel that he skipped his original plan and instead followed me to the next panel I was speaking on. He, too, couldn't afford to buy my book. Chandni went out, bought it for him, had me sign it, and gave it to the startled young man. He beamed.
  • Movie and theater actor Dalip Tahil bought 'Foreign' and had me sign it. I then changed his festival itinerary and took him to listen to my new favorite author, Akhil Sharma, whom he instantly loved and whose words gave us food for thought and led us to lunch at Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, where this intelligent, creative man regaled me with stories of Bollywood acting versus theater acting in London, while I held forth on finding great joy in literary fiction but the greatest joys in Bollywood films and their villains of pure, uncomplicated evil. Only in Bombay.
  • Bachi Karkaria. My dear friend from long ago, a pioneering journalist and the Director of The Times of India Literary Carnival, a remarkable woman who enjoys such fame but is one of the most 'present' human beings I know. 
  • Jeet Thayil, Booker Prize nominee, winner of the DSC Prize and others, and a poet I had a crush on when I was all of 21 years old, telling me he loved 'Foreign.' I thanked him for putting my book on the shortlist for The 2013 Shakti Bhatt First Book Award. He thanked me for writing it.
  • Meeting the young woman who was brave enough to file a case against journalist Tarun Tejpal for raping her. Meeting her and seeing her smiling and walking about like the world was a good place. Quietly thanking her so, so hard in my head.
  • Xenia and Shannon. Two young people who have worked with such dedication behind the scenes at this festival, quietly, with sincere and ready smiles. Ah. They still make kids like these. India will do just fine.

 

Of Awards and Rewards

Some mornings, you don't want to wake up to your alarm clock. You want to wake up to your smartphone buzzing from people tweeting your handle (there are at least three words in this sentence that wouldn't make sense to anyone a few years ago). That's how I awoke on Monday morning, eyes squinting to read the alerts about my book 'Foreign' being longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

My first response to this was disbelief. It's the same response I had to the news last month that 'Foreign' was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award.   

Why disbelief? Because, dear reader, if you will believe me when I tell you this, I had forgotten in these past months to dream of awards. Years ago, before I ever set pen to paper for this book, before my journalism career and my academic career, I used to stand before the mirror, dreaming that I had won an award for, yes, writing, and also for singing, for being a pop star. I did that whole thing with the microphone and acceptance speeches. 

Even when I knew that my publishers were nominating 'Foreign' for awards, I forgot to dream. I'll tell you why. I was dreaming a different dream. I was dreaming that 'Foreign' would make an impact, on people in their homes, people in power, on policy makers, and, thereby, on the lives of the people I have written about. I was dreaming of rewards.

Random House India's announcement of good news for its authors.

Random House India's announcement of good news for its authors.

Which is not to say that I am not absolutely thrilled and honored and excited out of my mind about being on these two award lists. Oh, my. These are two prestigious awards that have been won in past years by writers of world renown. The writers I am listed with this year are international literary stars, for all the best reasons. The creative writer in me is hugely encouraged to write more and more and has been just a bit swollen-headed these past few days. To think that someone on a jury read my book and liked it and pitched it to the list....

But the activist in me - the journalist and the academic and the human who spoke to farming men and women in Vidarbha - is still dreaming, wishing, hoping. She is also realizing that, with these awards, even just being on their list, gets her a little closer to her dream. More people might be curious, which could mean more readers, which could mean more chances of inspiring action, which means more chances of affecting policy.

So, now I'm going to dream of rewards and awards and more readings. Even on my book tour in four cities in India this past summer, the conversations were about the writing and also about the farmers' crisis. The reviews and interviews all discussed the issue in some detail. Tomorrow night, Thursday, October 24th, when I read at LitCrawl, a handful of people in Seattle will become curious about the farmers of Vidarbha, and maybe they will go home and pull out the ballots that just arrived in their mail and vote 'Yes' on Initiative 522, which calls for the labeling of genetically engineered foods, which will add a happy loop to these stories of globalization.

I am not claiming some mantle of selflessness here. It is, after all, egotistical to dream of yourself as being responsible, even in the littlest way, for change. Seriously, you could accuse me of having a God complex, right? But I think it works better for me than does the dream of being Madonna. Like A Prayer.