I’m lucky that so many of my literary heroes are South Asian. As a teenager, reading the work of writers like Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the bravest of us all, Arundhati Roy, helped me feel secure in myself. It is so relaxing to pick up a book and see a familiar name on the cover.
But discovering South Asian authors from right here in Aotearoa superseded that. Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sodden Downstream was a landmark for me. I couldn’t believe I was holding a book by a Sri Lankan from Wellington.
It can feel overly earnest now, to freak out about things like this. I know and work with so many non-white creatives. Many of the writers I reach for and reference first are not only South Asian but close to me in age – Fariha Róisín, Anuk Arudpragasam, Guy Gunaratne, and my own friend Romesh Dissanayake come to mind.
So when Kete Books invited me to compile a list of South Asian books from Aotearoa, and suggested not just books and writers that I already love, but some I had not yet been introduced to, I was reminded how much louder our voices can still be. The process of compiling and adding to this list has expanded the possibilities of my own reading, and I hope it can do the same for you.
For an absorbing late-night read
New Zealand writer and New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh has a brand-new thriller coming at the end of this month, There Should Have Been Eight (Penguin Random House 2023). Set in a remote house in the Southern Alps, it’s a high school reunion full of secrets and lies. In the same vein, Brannavan Gnanalingam’s newest book is also a sharp thriller, Slow Down, You’re Here (Lawrence & Gibson, April 2022) set on Waiheke Island. Rushi Vyas, Ōtepoti-based poet’s debut collection of poetry, When I Reach for Your Pulse (Otago University Press, September 2023), “untangles slippery and personal and political histories in the wake of a parent’s suicide”. I love Vyas’ poems. They feel to me like sitting very still next to someone guiding me quietly through painful things I’ve tried not to hear. Also worth mentioning is not just Vyas’ poetry, but his analyses of the way he writes them.
For reconnecting with community
Past the Tower, Under the Tree: Twelve Stories of Learning in Community (Gloria Books, May 2023), co-edited by Balamohan Shingade and Erena Shingade, which had a special graphic book review by Theo Macdonald in Metro, contains pieces by ’12 artists and activists crafting a life in community’. It includes poems, portraits, illustrations, and letters. It both questions the same institutions its artist and activist contributors operate within and expands the limits of them. Same same but different is A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices From Aotearoa New Zealand, co-edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong (Auckland University Press 2021). With short stories, poetry, essays and extracts from longer works, it includes the work of 75 writers, making it a unique and extensive collection.
For when you want to peel off the top layer and look at things more closely
Caste in Bengal (Permanent Black, June 2023) by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Tanika Sarkar is ‘the most wide-ranging and scholarly collection’ available on the subject. Bandyopadhyay is a professor of Indian Studies at Te Herenga Waka. In Visible Cities – Aotearoa fiction inspired by Italo Calvino, 11 emerging writers have written about 11 different cities (or towns) around the country. This collection features a truly funny slice-of-life piece called Three Gigs, by Dinithi Bowatte. (The Cuba Press, September 2023).
For times when you want to start and finish a book in one sitting
Christchurch-based Nod Ghosh is a prolific writer of the very exciting and tricky genre that is flash fiction, and has recently released a new novella – The Two-Tailed Snake (Fairlight Books, September 2023), set in North-East India in 1945. It follows 14-year-old Joya in the aftermath of her father’s disappearance. And if you haven’t already read last year’s Booker Prize-winning The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Profile Books, October 2022) by Shehan Karunatilaka, allow me to be yet another person recommending you do so. It is a mystery novel of sorts, it is both funny and heartbreaking and deserves all the praise it has already received and more. Hindi-language poet Sunita Sharma’s book Anachue Sparsh (February 2022) is a book of poems in which Sharma attempts “to give voice to tales, incidents, and stories that have touched my heart over the years, some fictional and some inspired by real-life events”.
For reading together
Award winning children’s author Swapna Haddow has a new series of books out about a panda who’s sick of being called cute. The first is Bad Panda and the Cake Escape (Allen & Unwin, August 2022). The Grandmothers of Pikitea Street | Ngā Kuia o te Tiriti o Pikitea (Oratia, September 2022), by Renisa Viraj Maki is a warm and celebratory story about Grandmothers sharing tales as they pack their grandchildren’s lunchboxes. The Bad Smell Hotel, (Cuba Press, June 2023) is set in the not-too-distant future, and is written by 11-year old Leela and her father Rajorshi Chakraborti, and Lucy and the Dark (Picture Puffin, August 2023) by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated tenderly by award-winning writer, designer and illustrator Vasanti Unka is a bedtime story about a little girl making friends with the Dark. Unka’s 2020 book, I Am the Universe, also won Best Children’s Book at the PANZ Book Design Awards 2021.
Given that we are so close to the end of the year, 2024 will bring us a whole new swathe of books by South Asian writers both here and abroad (including my own). I’ll leave you with one I am particularly excited about.
Books to look forward to
Romesh Dissanayake’s debut novel, When I open the shop comes out late March 2024 with Te Herenga Waka Press. Told in three parts over three days from 2012 to 2021, the novel is darkly funny, lyrical, angry, and sometimes surreal.
Saraid de Silva is a Sri Lankan/Pākehā writer and arts worker living in Tāmaki. Her first novel, Amma, comes out in March 2024 in NZ and Australia with Hachette Aotearoa, and in April 2024 in the UK with Weatherglass Books.
This review was originally published on Kete Books and is reproduced here with kind permission.