Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category


Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Part III – Short Stories, Pakistanis and Misc.

Short Story Collections

You Are Free: Stories (Riverhead) By Danzy Senna

This book was so relevant to me, similar to the way I felt about Danielle Evans Before You Suffocate Your Own Damn Self, except those stories focused on women slightly younger than me and these focused on women slightly older than me. I don’t find Senna’s writing exactly mellifluous, but I was completely hooked by these stories. Most of them are set in LA or New York and concern women who are becoming mothers or who are dealing with motherhood and partnerhood and professional lives as artists and lovers. Most of the stories deal with race, especially the complications of mixed-race America, but also the horrors of divorce and pre-school and the choices we make. And I don’t use the word “horrors” lightly here. I mean, some of the stories were really borderline terrifying—in a good way. Take the first story in the collection, “Admission”, about a couple in LA whose daughter gets into a fancy preschool. At first it starts out innocuous enough, but then spirals into something like an eerie Twilight Zone episode, which I wasn’t expecting and therefore it is literally is still haunting me, like months after I read it. Another story, “The Care of the Self” is about a woman who leaves her New York life and marries an artist in New Mexico, with whom she has a 10-month old daughter. The story revolves around a visit from her fancy, professional NYC girlfriend and how it brings out her securities and insecurities. There is a description of childbirth in this story that made me break out in a cold sweat. Unlike some of the other short story collections I read this year, I could tell you about each of the stories in this book. I think that says it all.

Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf) By Benjamin Percy

I’ve read the title story in Benjamin Percy’s collection over and over ever since it was selected for the Best American anthology (edited by Ann Patchett) back in 2006. The story concerns a teenage boy living in a small Oregon town where many of the men have been recruited away to the War in Iraq. Percy simply nails the historical moment, and really digs into adolescent maleness with the boy’s experiments with violence. It’s a flawless story and I study it constantly for the sleight of hand. So, I’ve been meaning to read this collection for a long time and thought it was really solid. It has a great sense of place and character: the Northwest comes through picture-perfect and the characters are more comfortable in the wilderness than in their relationships. I was amused and excited—especially since I read these two collections back to back—to find an undercurrent of horror running through the book, similar to Senna’s. I mean, besides Percy’s outright post-apocalyptic  story, “Meltdown”, which reads like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if the The Road were more of a renegade love story instead of a parenting manual—there were several other stories that hinted at a Twin Peaks-esque “the evil in the woods” storyline. I have to say, I am so inspired by this light weaving of the supernatural amongst short stories, and I think I am being pulled harder and harder to do this. Again, like Senna’s work, pregnancy was one of the spaces of horror (which I guess it has always been in fiction and cinema) but with a miscarriage by bats and a gruesome description (like really) of an ectopic pregnancy in another story—the book really shows Percy’s interest in the dark, which of course, I love. Percy’s novel, The Wilding, is high on my list of books to read.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead) By Maile Meloy

Okay, I need to admit that this year I have suffered something that feels almost dementia-like in it’s strangeness. After spending four years in an MFA program and binding together a thesis with 14 short stories and spending years reading and thinking about this form, I recently have felt like I: 1) Don’t know how to write a short story, 2) Don’t really know what constitutes a short story, 3) maybe don’t even like the form so much (eeeek, who am I?) This feeling has receded some in the past month, but I was really feeling this strongly this summer. So, I was seeking out short story collections to try and answer my question. I had read a sample of Meloy’s book last year, which gave me about half of the opening story “Travis, B.”, about an incredibly lonely ranch hand in Montana, and had been thinking of this character since then. I enjoyed Meloy’s collection, though I felt I was trapped in a meta-space when I was reading the stories of trying desperately to figure out what made each story tick, that I kind of enjoyed the whole experience a bit less than if I hadn’t been so caught up in “What makes a good short story?” I had kind of assumed that all of Meloy’s characters where going to be like the lonely ranch hand in the first story, but she is diverse, inhabiting everything from a down and out factory worker to a rich, old Latin American man–and there is a lot of heartbreaking moments that I savored. Meloy’s work made me remember that one of the things I love about short stories is the documenting of that moment of slippage, or loss. If anyone else is on the short story quest, this is a great book to check out.

Lucky Girls (HarperCollins) By Nell Freudenberger

I was disturbed intrigued by the excerpt from Freudenberger in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, concerning a young Bangladeshi immigrant, and then I was read about her golden-ness, so I felt like I had to know for myself what the hype was all about. These stories are interesting, they are. I mean, I too find myself writing about young women in India and young women traveling the world. Also, I am always fascinated by the white people I meet who are in these situations, and Lucky Girls tells their story. I remember the story “The Tutor,” about an Indian boy who fails in America, returns to India  and the young white girl he tutors from Best American 2004. I mean, the stories are unexpected, they are original. The collection only has five stories – the last one especially long, but they are very well-written, and I would be amiss if I didn’t encourage you to read them, though I am reticent somehow. So strange, this reticence.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Vintage) By Karen Russell

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like this book, though I loved the title story (even though Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal is the best book on this subject). When sitting down to read the stories straight through, I found that my tolerance for Russell’s meticulous, beautifully-imagined worlds was low. I couldn’t just flit from haunted swamplands to surreal summer camps. But then later, when I would pick it up and read a particular story, I would be absolutely wow-ed all over again by Russell’s imagination, but mostly by her story-writing chops: structure, dialogue, flow. I mean she wrote an amazing story, “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” about being disappointed in your parents and dealing with community, but the actual plot is about Western wagon migration and a family whose Patriarch is a Minotaur! I mean, let’s face it, she’s a genius. Read the damn book.

No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner) By Miranda July

I am really disappointed in myself for not liking this. I love Miranda July. I loved Me and You and Everyone We Know. I mean, come on, the scene with the goldfish and the kid smearing his spunk all over the library stacks and the baby on IM chat poohtalking? I LOVED Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely are Not Going To Talk About. This multimedia/play type of thing went to see where at the end we all had lighters under our chair and had to flick them when she asked questions that were both funny and painful. I even loved the website for this book when it came out that used a refrigherator and chalk. But I got totally stuck in the first story and haven’t moved on. I’ve even tried to skip around and read other stories. I couldn’t relate to the characters. It was too cutesy/hipster …. Sigh, I need guidance. Which story from this book did you love? What am I not getting here?

The Pakistanis

Burnt Shadows (Picador) By Kamila Shamsie

There was tons of talk about Pakistani Writers being the new “it” literary community at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and I developed a total writer crush on Kamila Shamsie, who was hot and brilliant and tomboyish and cool and smart all at once. Burnt Shadows starts with a horrifying and beautiful scene set right before the atomic bomb drops in Nagasaki and then goes all over the place from Delhi before Partition to Karachi to Jihadhi camps in Afghanistan to New York – and she pulls it all off with an interesting mix of characters and powerful surprises. I loved the way this book was understated and melodramatic all at once, and how Shamsie inhabits all these different characters. It was one of those books where I literally would be like, “OH MY GOD!” out loud at the beginning of a surprising chapter where she twists it all around. There is some rushing at the end, but I really appreciated that the perspective is totally not American. I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

Homeboy (Shaye Areheart Books) By H.M. Naqvi

So, H. M. Naqvi won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (launched this year) and is totally a bad-ass, but I had no idea how much of a bad-ass he was until I actually read this novel which just rings from the first page. I loved, loved, loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Homeboy reminded me of that book: a Pakistani who comes to America and then falls out post 9.11, top of the world to the bottom, but that was a special, reserved, refined kind of story telling, and this is balls-to-the-wall, N.W.A-quoting, reggae DJ, dandy-ish adventureism that takes on coming-of-age, coming to America, losing one’s father, friendship, duty, Islam, Patriotism, America … I can not tell you how relevant this novel was, how important, and how exciting it was to read a REAL South Asian American novel and I am so sad that I slept on it for so long. This book really, really gives a lot of knowledge for first time novelists. Especially because, Naqvi pulls such an amazing style through this, I mean, sometimes absolutely ridiculous but captures New York and post-911 life and fear and turn-of-the-century partying. I can not tell you how important this book is. Read it. NOW.

In other Rooms, Other Wonders (Norton) By Daniyal Mueenuddin

This was really the book that tipped the trend scales in favor of the Pakistanis, I think. I’d heard so much about it and Mueenuddin’s own fascinating story of going back to Pakistan and learning to run a farm, that I held off to read it, in case it didn’t live up to the hype. But it did, oh, it did. It is definitely one of the most amazing accounts that I have read about class in South Asia. The connected stories in this book move so fluidly between the working poor to the powerful rich and in-between. There is a story, “Lily” about wanting to change and realizing you can’t, that I think might be my favorite short story of the year. [I wish someone would make it into a film. Sophia Coppola, maybe, but I think she only makes movies about white folks. So if, like me, you thought this collection would only be good at one thing, think again, it is amazing in a bunch of different ways.

On Writing

Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin) By Zadie Smith

What I like best about this collection of essays is it’s range: that it moves easily from a dense essay about modern literature “Two Directions for the Novel” to Smith’s coverage of the 2006 Oscars for Vogue Magazine, though I think the essay I was most interested in was Smith’s coverage of a trip to Liberia. A great book of essays to think about how a novelist can work in other forms.

How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) By James Wood

I’d been reading this great book on Fiction on and off ever since it came out, but this summer while working on fiction and studying for the GREs, I finally finished it and it seemed just so relevant. Wood’s picks apart all the tropes and devices of fiction using the examples in his study and the result, I found, was really helpful in thinking about both reading and writing. A must have for any writer’s library.


Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Pt. 1 — YA Frenzy

I’ve been utterly neglecting this blog, but mostly in a good way. Since I last blogged, I was able to publish several pieces of writing that began as blog posts: one on these two books, one on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and one on Where I Write (plus, this little piece on Lady Gaga). But I thought I’d get back in the blogging game by writing a bit about some of the books I’ve been reading this year, which was a major impetus for this blog in the first place. (I just can’t get into GoodReads for some reason.) I’ve broken down my reading round-up into several thematic posts, which I’ll put up over the next few days (weeks?). This one is about the several amazing young adult novels I have recently read.

Dream School ( By Blake Nelson

As an avid Sassy reader in my teens, I read Blake Nelson’s novel Girl when it was serialized in the magazine. [As was Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides. So amazing! (Anyone reading the new Jane website btw? Is it still relevant with everything else out there?)] I bought Girl as soon as I could probably at the B. Dalton at the mall when it came out in 1994 when I was 16.

This was before the Internet, so all I knew about Blake Nelson was what was written on the back of the cover. I didn’t even get if he was a boy or a girl, and if he was a boy, how he got exactly what it was like to be a suburban girl trying to be cool. There is a scene when Andrea Marr has sex with Todd Sparrow, the uber-cool grunge rocker that she’s in love with and he holds her hands above her head and she finally gets “sex”—that moment literally stuck with me through all my early sex experiences until I had my own Todd Sparrow moment. Anyway, even though I grew up in Dayton, Ohio where—where, if there was a burgeoning grunge movement, I only occasioned it very briefly at a few downtown coffee shop where I like never went—I really felt Andrea and I remember it as one of the few young adult novels I actually read when I was a young adult.

I spent years waiting a sequel, since Nelson leaves you hanging a bit at the end of the novel when Andrea is getting ready to go to college, but then I went off to college myself and started reading, you know, Foucault and shit. Only in the last three years of so did I think of Girl again and this time when I looked up Blake Nelson, I came upon a treasure trove of YA novels, and then saw the crazy-good Gus Van Sant rendition of Paranoid Park, which was beautiful and abstract and perfect. But only after I read Jessanne Collins’ awesome Millions article about Blake Nelson did I discover there WAS a sequel to Girl, and it was FREE ONLINE!

I feel like it is so hard to write properly about the college experience, which is where Dream School picks up—at Andrea’s exclusive East Coast liberal arts school, which sounded like Wesleyan or Vassar. But Nelson nails the insecurities of being a Freshman and trying to find a niche and not understanding what is going on in classes, but I especially love Andrea’s struggle to become an artist and eventually a writer. I mean, at the same time, Andrea’s self-involvement and white girl-ness is a little grating. Poor Latina Juanita, who lives on her floor, doesn’t belong and eventually leaves to go live in Latino House, which I guess is an accurate description of college life, but a little annoying. But regardless, it was so enjoyable to catch up with Andrea 17 years later.

The Pattern of Paper Monsters (Back Bay Books) By Emma Rathbone

I read about this novel on The Millions (okay, I’m a little obsessed with this site) and was fascinated, since I think there aren’t enough books about young people facing incarceration. When I would work with young people who were locked up and would hear their stories of being on the run, falling in love, dealing with intense violence and parenthood and losing loved ones, I was always telling them that they should be novelists. So, I was really interested to see how this book would read. The book follows Jacob Higgins, an 17-year-old kid from Virginia, through several months of his incarceration in a juvenile detention center. I mean, since he’s a white kid in a juvenile facility surrounded by what seems like all white people, it was a little bizarre, since that hasn’t been my experience. Plus, some of the other details about interactions with girls and being able to leave the facility to have dinner with a mentor seemed outlandish after actually seeing how American juvenile institutions are run. But, otherwise, Jake’s experiences were pretty close to most of the young people I’ve met who are incarcerated: he’s poor, from an abusive family and he committed a violent crime. The novel is supposed to be a journal Jake’s writing, and Emma Rathbone really gets the zoned out, angry, bored thing down perfectly and also manages to bring about a realistic redemption. I read an interview with Rathbone where she talks about how she heard Jake’s voice in her head and I am impressed by how she was unafraid to write so far out of her own experience. [Even though I am putting this book under the YA category here, it actually isn’t a YA book, and I don’t really understand the distinctions.] I’d be really interested to hear what others folks with experience of working with young people think of this book.

Recovery Road (Scholastic Press) By Blake Nelson

After I read Dream School, I was reading all these blog posts from Blake Nelson being on the road with Sister Spit – um, HOW AWESOME! (Can Sister Spit please come to India?) And just hanging out on his blog, when I read about Recovery Road, and I had just read Pattern of Paper Monsters, which was similar in that it was about young people navigating institutional spaces and having to rebuild their lives, so I just went ahead and bought it and again, fell into the world of this awesome girl narrator. This time her name is Maddie and she’s a 16-year-old who’s in rehab, and is actually way less annoying than Andrea Marr from Girl. We don’t hear much about Maddie’s crazy days except that she was totally embarrassed by the way she behaved and how she would fight people, but there is an amazing love story which turns and turns – I love how this book really rides the story out through relapses and how the character has to witness a lot of horrible things as she moves forward. Blake Nelson is just incredibly readable and I want to read everything he has written.

Sister Mischief (Candlewick) By Laura Goode

I’m just going to mention this book quickly here, because I want to write a longer review of it somewhere, but in terms of YA or regular adult reading, one of those really inspiring books that tackles race, diversity, sexuality, etc. and tells the story of a high school girl hip hop group in suburban Minneapolis. I’ve felt like my own characters when I write about childhood or adolescence are betrayed or betrayers, and Laura’s book reminded me that your high school girl friends can be total heroes. I like want to buy this book for so many people I know. (Full disclosure: Laura is a really good friend of mine.)

Long Division ( By Kiese Laymon

I’m also just going to mention this book, because I want to write more about it and interview Kiese Laymon, who I went to college with, and is now a professor at Vassar. Another on-line book, which I actually downloaded and read on my Kindle. For all the awesomeness of Blake Nelson, it was SO satisfying to read a novel with two young black protagonists who are time-traveling, falling in love, engaging with the realities of the Civil Rights movement and using the most awesomest Southern slang ever invented. Why you gotta be so green light lately, City? I was literally cheering when I started this book and that’s why I want to write more about it. But again, a great resource because it’s free and something I really, really think young people – especially young people of color – would respond to.


Teaching Creative Writing in South Asia

I taught my first creative writing workshop five years ago at Kearny Street Workshop, a wonderful Asian American arts non-profit in San Francisco. There was a rare thunderstorm the night of the workshop and as the participants made their way up to the third floor from Capp Street, a somewhat nefarious alley in the Mission District, I felt like I was teaching in the room Sebastien escaped to in The Neverending Story. It was a good start.

Since then I have taught several more creative writing workshops at KSW, at an experimental reform school in Colorado, to kids at a continuation high school in San Francisco, and inside the SF juvenile hall. Besides the KSW workshops, most of my experience teaching writing and storytelling has been with disenfranchised young people in the United States–meaning mostly young people of color who have had institutional experience or are at very high-risk of being touched by “the system” — meaning foster care, group homes, juvenile justice, etc. It also means that they have very little access to wealth, and very high chances of becoming incarcerated as adults. In India, I have met several people doing amazing work with different kinds of young people, almost all of whom are extremely poor. I’ve had several long conversations about how doing work with young people in India/South Asia is so entirely different from the work in America, mostly because in India these young people are tremendously open to change and grateful for the opportunities they are given through these programs. This obviously isn’t always the case — people drop out or take the wrong path regardless of what they’ve been given, but the sense of hopelessness is different. I’ve gotten sympathetic looks from several people who I think are doing incredibly difficult work with orphans and slum children when I tell them about my work with juvenile hall kids in America. It has really made me about the multi-tiered, hierarchical systems that are in place in America that create such a subdued rage, resentment, misunderstanding and violence amongst our young people. It has also made me itch to get back to work.

I recently had the opportunity to teach a tandem writing-music-video workshop at the Shree Mangal Dvip Boarding School, founded by Buddhist teacher Thrangu Rinpoche, in Boudnath – a city just outside of Kathmandu. The boarding school serves 600 Himalayan children who travel long distances to gain their education here — (like really, really, really long distances, one former student told me it is a three-hour bus ride and seven days of walking to get to his home village!) We worked with eight 15 and 16-year-olds in the VidKids media program started a few years ago by California Institute of the Arts Integrated Media Program professor Tom Leeser, who is one of Robin’s mentors and good friends.

Robin and I got to Nepal a few days early and relaxed for a few days in the quiet of Nagarakot’s tiered hillsides. I spent most of my time reading the incredible Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? — a book about the University of Michigan Community Prison Arts Project, written by PCAP’s founder Buzz Alexander. It is one of the inspiring and educational books I have ever read. Though Buzz is writing about doing work in prisons with America’s most oppressed populations, when we finally met with Tom the night before our first day with the VidKids from poor Nepal—there was scynchronisity. Tom was quoting Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which figures as a major text in the class that PCAP students take as prep to their volunteer work. Tom, Robin and I decided that we would make the week with the Nepali kids all about playing and experimentation, which is different from the hierarchical, rote-memorization, exam-heavy education system South Asian kids usually have. We were also pushing the idea of collaboration. We wanted to create a classroom space where we weren’t telling the young people what to do and where we would be creating as equals. Of course, this is much harder than it seems, but the kids were very open to the play.

I started off as I often did in my summer media programs with kids at Youth Outlook, with the life map project, which I learned initially from either Ian Kim or Jeremiah Jeffries — friends in San Francisco who gathered together a solidarity group back in the Bay Area several years ago. Basically, students draw a quick, symbolic life map of their life. By map, I mean more like treasure map with one event leading to another, or it can also be a portrait. The main thing is to notice the symbols each person uses to characterize life events. In media workshops, we use this life map to generate story ideas for commentaries like these amazing and harrowing tales. In Nepal, we used the maps to come up with common themes and then try to compose group poems. When one group’s maps yielded only sports and activities like football, volleyball, music, dancing and swimming, I had the kids free write on how these activities make them feel, and a poem filled with beautiful words (like: ‘magical mystery, tired, fulfilled, sky’) arose. Other days, we wrote metaphors and similes about our hearts, eyes and minds, or wrote a group book based on nine elements of a story. The final writing project was to complete metaphor or simile poems about their past, their present and what they think of Nepal (I was …, I am …, Nepal is …) —inspired by this video by local spoken word poets/hip hop group Lyrics Independent. Later, Robin and I got to share the stage with these poet/rappers and a whole crew of slam poets at an amazing poetry event organized by Pranab Singh and Suvani Singh, who run Quixote’s Cove, a dope bookstore.

The eight young people we worked with all came of age in the decade of Nepal’s government turmoil. I was surprised to learn that Nepal is actually the poorest South Asian state, and definitely could tell this by lack of infrastructure. The roads were terrible, but the most telling sign was the 14 hour power cuts that the city suffered. The time rolled every day so that sometimes the power went out at 1 pm and at other times I was woken up by the lights in our hotel room coming on at 3 in the morning. Since we are addicted to our laptops and the internet and were trying to get ready for a digital storytelling workshop most days and only had one power outlet in our room, Robin and I discovered we are not good with scarce resources and some days felt very much like ugly Americans. It was a good lesson.

In our final performance, we took samples from the poem sentences that the VidKids wrote about themselves and about Nepal and used the MPC1000 to do live cut up poems (with beats and collected sounds) to a looped video that the young people had shot around the school, projected on screen made of handmade Nepali paper, while another video of their poetry showed on another screen. The kids had also graffitied their words on some of the other paper. All in all, we certainly achieved our goals of not doing anything too linear and filled up the computer room with sound, words and images.

On returning to Kolkata, I led a workshop at The American Center for nearly 50 high school students, for an annual creative writing event they have every Spring. This was a completely new experience for me because the young people were from 25 of the best private high schools in the Kolkata area–I’m talking about storied, British-era high schools that graduate their students to elite universities all over India and the rest of the world. A very different population than I am used to working with. I was super excited to be a part of it, except for the catch that it had to be a competition, complete with trophies! I tried to slyly discourage competition by reading them Emily Dickinson. [I mean, not that this is unheardof, I competed in the illustrious Power of the Pen tournament in middle school, even making it to the state finals, where I choked on some silly prompt, but have fond memories of going on a walk on the Ohio State University campus and throwing rocks at a stop sign with my best frenemey.]

Anyway, I decided to focus on a workshop idea that I learned from Peter Orner in graduate school, taking the oft-told family story and turning that into a crafted narrative. I focusing on the use of specific detail, language, tension, mood etc—starting off with some cognitive creativity jump-starting ideas that I learned from an amazing workshop from my Indivisible co-editrix Pireeni Sundaralingam.

It was amazing to be in a big room filed with Indian students in varying uniforms. It became clear that creative writing was not an educational tool that was utilized at these schools, since India in general has a major emphasis on science and math, but that the room was filled with budding writers and voracious readers. It was also fascinating to be in a room full of eager students. Whenever I asked for volunteers, arms would shoot into the air and the youth would stand to answer or read their work! How strange, but wonderful. The young people were truly lovely and after an hour and a half workshop, and a tea break where they got pound cake and mango juice, they all set to work on their competition piece. It was so exciting to see these young people bent over their papers. I could feel the creativity buzzing. There is nothing like seeing 50 kids writing stories by hand in this time of video games and Facebook. I wish I had an equivalent picture of students I worked with in Megan Mercurio’s English class in the San Francisco Juvenile Hall, because I often felt the same energy there. I was pleasantly surprised at the numerous stories of heartbreak and romance written by young men, and my co-judge commented on the endless numbers of ghost stories. In the end, we awarded the top prize to a very shy young woman for a story about a girl in the metro station who may or may not have been a terrorist.

More and more lately, I’ve been really thinking about pedagogy and about my experiences teaching writing and literary arts in different settings. Yesterday, I met with novelist, professor and blogger extraordinaire Rimi B. Chatterjee at Jadavpur University to get a feel for the creative writing field here in India. Monday, I’m going to go see the people at Jana Sanskriti, so I can connect and learn about one of India’s largest Theatre of the Oppressed groups–a technique I want to know more about. Next week, I hope to meet with the people at the India Vision Foundation, one of India’s leading NGOs working on incarcerated rights and rehabilitation. I’m so excited to see how this work is being done here and how I can take back knowledge to my own work in America.


The New New Delhi

In 1998, I flew to India for the first time on my own. I was 20 years old and had been living in Philadelphia for the past four months. In the apartment I lived in with three friends in West Philadelphia, an itinerant drug dealer named Melvin crashed on the couch. We bought cases of Olde English. A 40 oz. broke in the freezer and we left its remains there, the brown-ice crusted shards of glass like moraine deposits.

When I landed in Delhi then, I had an eight-hour layover before moving on to Kolkata, during which I got violently ill. The world unstable and my body twisted within it, unable to find any balance. Perhaps it was something I ate, but I couldn’t help think that it was metaphysical. It was like time travel—my body and mind just couldn’t adjust to the extremes of America and India. Delhi, in my memory, was hung with thick fumes, gray and jittery with traffic. It was a very bad taste in the back of my throat.

How things have changed.

The new Delhi International airport, or T3, is shiny and hung with all kinds of art: murals of India and a giant relief of mudras hanging above the immigration stations. The parking garage was buzzing with new cars. Later, we took the Delhi metro, which gets you basically anywhere you want to go in the city. The women’s only compartments are marked with a flowery pink logo on the platform, but we rode co-ed (a little intense).

Everywhere there are throngs of young people with backpacks, headphones and mobiles — dressed in funny t-shirts and jeans. The epic smog even seems to have cleared up some, allowing for blue skies and puffy clouds. The excitement that I first felt when I visited in 2003 remains, swelling. Delhi’s recent push for the Commonwealth Games making everything here a little cleaner. The future certainly looks bright, but it’s the way that rubs against the ancient that make India so incredible.

Our first morning, we decided to walk from our hotel — located in Sunder Nagar, a fancy gated community in South Delhi — and immediately ran into a crumbling Mughal-era mosque and one of Delhi’s many gates. After crossing a busy and noisy street, we passed through an old wooden gate and suddenly everything seemed to fall away, leaving the cool dusty ground and an old well for washing. The fading green and blue tiles matched perfectly the parrots that nested behind the bricks of the main building. One forgets what ancient really means in America, it felt good to breathe it in–try to wrap one’s imagination around what came so long before. Walking along we happened on the National Gallery of Modern Art and checked out an amazing exhibit tracing the trajectory of modern Indian art from Colonial times. I wanted to write/read a novel about almost every artist listed.

For all it’s glamor and newness, Delhi is still completely overwhelming — in the same way New York is if New York had no traffic laws or cross-walks. Crossing the street here and riding in auto-rickshaws scares the hell out of me. On our first day, we had to try to cross several lanes of head-on traffic on foot, almost had a direct collision in an auto-rickshaw with a van, and saw at least two accidents. One was late at night when a bus clipped a small white car that was backing out, busting out the car’s taillight. It was the car driver’s fault, and after initial impact, the car stopped for a second before turning and zooming away. The bus driver left the bus parked in the middle of the street and came running after the car yelling a string of colorful Delhi expletives. India is the country with the highest number of road accident deaths, and Delhi has the highest in the country. I’m not surprised, but I am terrified.

The sun sets each day between 5:30 and 6 — unchanging throughout the year. This is the hardest time of the day for me, and the hardest thing so far to get used to. In the dark, everything turns hazy and dangerous. I was trying to go hear sunset Sufi singing at the shrine of saint Nizamuddin, but we were delayed leaving the Fulbright orientation and by the time we reached the area, dusk had turned into actual night. The rickshaw dropped us off at the entrance of the neighborhood, which was bustling with people but poorly lit. There were cars and carts pushing us to the sides of the street where crippled beggars huddled and hundreds of men and women in traditional Islamic clothing bustling about. Suddenly we were very, very out of place. This was no Connaught Place with Adidas stores and McDonald’s on every corner. We quickly turned around and headed back. I forgot that feeling of being in a strange place and coming up against these boundaries. The shrine was closed, so I hope to return again.

In general, I have to come up with a strategy to deal with this time of day, not only is this when the jet lag is the worst, I know in Kolkata it’s when the mosquitoes come out. I always get the blues at this time of day and want suddenly to go directly to bed. There is also the fact that women virtually disappear from the streets at this time — so I think part of it is feeling trapped. Hopefully once I’m settled in Kolkata, I can set this time to do some yoga or something — once I get over the hump, everything seems fine again later in the evening.

As I knew it would be, this trip has already been most memorable because of personal connections. Professor and writer Pranav Jani joined us for breakfast on our first day. Pranav, who is living/researching in India for the year with his family, has been a huge supported of Indivisible and was trying to help us get out to Ohio State this Spring. It was great to talk to someone who has been doing what we are about to embark on. He recommended the book Modern India by Sumit Sarkar, as a great text to help put this year in context.

I also attended a wonderful reading at the India International Center — a kindof country club for artists — featuring Hong Kong-based poet Agnes Lam and Indivisible contributor Sudeep Sen. The event was chaired by the very daper Professor Alok Bhalla, who gave a wonderful talk on the concept of the “ethical imagination” in poetry–or the role of the poet in the very grim world of today. It was great to meet Sudeep, who has been very supportive of my poetry as a voracious editor. He and his house guest/collaborator — the Irish painter Janet Pierce — convinced the extremely jet-lagged Robin and I to hang out with them late into the night. Along with a tasty Bloody Mary, an excellent dinner that topped off with delicious fig ice cream, a breathtaking midnight stroll in the Lodhi Gardens — we went back to see Sudeep’s incredible library at his home office for Atlas and Aark Arts Books.

It’s funny how in barely three days, some of my initial thoughts of how my time in India will go have already shifted. I had this fantasy that I would live a Spartan existence here in terms of food and drink — subsisting on fruits and light daals. I figured this move away from the gluttony of my life in San Francisco would allow me to cut back on everything, including drinking. Of course I know that those kinds of changes have nothing to do with place and everything with personal choice, but India is rich with three-hour meals and various pleasures … so my serious life change might have to wait awhile.