Indian-origin writers: Making it big on the world literary stage

Indian-origin writers: Making it big on the world literary stage

December 30, 2021 | Author: Kavita Bajeli-Datt, Independent Journalist

Indian-origin writers have contributed immensely to the growth and richness of English literature. The 32-million strong Indian diaspora, one of the most prominent communities globally, has produced an acclaimed and diverse range of literary work that has bagged some of the world’s top literary awards, in spite of the fact that English was not culturally their mother tongue and only a working language for most of them.

V.S.Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri, the best-known Indian-origin writers, have not only influenced the world literary scene but have also inspired the next generation of Indian-origin writers who have not only gained recognition in the English-speaking literary universe but also had their works translated into other languages. Their writings on themes like immigration, displacement, nostalgia, alienation, mixed cultural identity, and ethnicity are often layered with mild to the strong critique of things back ‘home’ – socially, culturally, and even politically.

As the year comes to an end, we feature 30 Indian-origin writers – some world-renowned and others who made their mark with aplomb even during the pandemic.

Like every year, the diasporic writings in 2021 included both fiction and non-fiction – insightful essays, climate crisis, mystery, racism, displacement, love, food, a book for children, and gay memoirs – 2021 offered everything for book lovers.

Here is the list of diasporic literary writers whose works were released in 2021:

  1. Salman Rushdie – One of the most celebrated and equally controversial, Rushdie, who has influenced an entire generation of Indo-Anglian writers and ranks 30th on the Times’ list of the 50 greatest British authors since 1945, has come out with his latest book ‘Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020.’ The latest book of the Booker prize-winning and internationally bestselling writer is a collection of insightful essays, criticism, and speeches from 2003 to 2020. Rushdie, who faced a fatwa from radical Islamists for ‘Satanic Verses’ in 1989 and had to spend a decade in hiding, chronicles the shifts in culture and literature from the early 2000s to the present time. The writer whose works have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times and now lives in New York has covered many subjects like migration, multiculturalism, censorship, among others, in his anthology.
  2. Amitav Ghosh – Acclaimed writer, Ghosh in his latest book ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis’, finds the origins of contemporary climate crisis in Western colonialism’s violent exploitation of human life and the natural environment. The book written against the backdrop of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, is being described as a successor of sorts to his 2016’s ‘The Great Derangement,’ the book where the celebrated writer first engaged with climate change. Ghosh is the first English-language writer to receive the 54th Jnanpith award, India’s highest literary honor, and was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s coveted civilian honors, in 2007. His book ‘Sea of Poppies’ was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and he is a joint winner, along with Margaret Atwood of a Dan David Prize. He holds two Lifetime Achievement awards and four honorary doctorates.
  3. Jhumpa Lahiri – The 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning author released the English version of her new novel ‘Whereabouts’, which she first wrote and published in Italian in 2018 as ‘Dove Mi Trovo’ (Where I find myself). This is the first book that the Bengali-American, whom US President Barack Obama awarded 2014 National Medals of Arts and Humanities for her exemplary writings on Indo- American experience, wrote in Italian and translated it into English herself. Lahiri, who through her works have explored the lives of Indian Americans and their offspring, began the book in 2015 before returning to the US but continued to work on it during her frequent trips to Rome. Though the book is in the form of brief vignettes told by an unnamed narrator in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, it has some biographical facets.
  4. Amitava Kumar – Writer and journalist, Kumar, who has won awards for more than a dozen fiction and nonfiction books, in his latest book ‘A Time Outside This Time,’ focuses on the global proliferation of fake news and misinformation and its impact. His last novel ‘Immigrant, Montana: A Novel’ was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, a book of the year by The New Yorker, and listed by former US President Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of 2018. Kumar lives in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, where he is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College. He was the scriptwriter for two documentary films: Dirty Laundry, about the national-racial politics of Indian South Africans, and Pure Chutney, about the descendants of indentured Indian laborers in Trinidad.
  5. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – An Indian-American author, poet, activist, and the Betty and Gene McDavid Professor of Writing at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, Divakaruni’s latest book ‘The Last Queen’ brings to life the last and the youngest queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the legendary Sikh ruler. The book tells the unforgettable story of one of the most fearless women of the nineteenth century, a commoner, who unexpectedly inherited the throne and went on to become a legendary warrior queen. The award-winning author of 18 books – some of which have been turned into films – through her work has touched on the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world.
  6. Shrabani Basu – London-based journalist, historian, and Sunday Times best-selling author, Basu has come out with her latest book ‘The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji, and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village.’ The book narrates the story of Arthur Conan Doyle donning the hat of his fictional hero Sherlock Holmes to personally investigate the case of a young Indian lawyer, George Edalji, who was falsely accused and imprisoned for mutilating horses. She is known for her earlier work ‘ Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant’, now a major motion picture, and ‘Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan.’
  7. Nikesh Shukla – British author, journalist, and screenwriter has come out this year with ‘Brown Baby: A memoir of race, family, and home,’ addressed to his daughter that touches on issues like racism, sexism, and parenting. He crowdfunded a collection of 21 essays, ‘The Good Immigrant’, in 2016 with contributions from Riz Ahmed, Musa Okwonga, Bim Adewunmi, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, among others, and which topped the bestsellers list. He was in the news this year for turning down the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to literature as he said it “valorizes the British Empire.”
  8. Sunjeev Sahota – Indian-origin British author was among the 13 writers longlisted for the prestigious 2021 Booker Prize for fiction for his novel ‘China Room’, alongside Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Powers. Sahota, the 2015 Booker Prize nominee for ‘The Year of the Runaways’, which is about the experience of illegal immigrants in Britain, was on the longlist for his third novel, which is partly inspired by the author’s family history back home in Punjab and is about love, oppression, and freedom.
  9. Abir Mukherjee – This Bengali-Scottish writer has come out with his fifth book ‘The Shadows of Men’ in the author’s series of historical crime novels set in Kolkata in the wake of World War 1. Mukherjee became a literary star around five years back with ‘A Rising Man’. He paired a white policeman, Captain Sam Wyndham, and his brown subordinate, Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee.
  10. Jeet Thayil – Known for his book ‘Narcopolis’ which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Thayil, a poet, librettist, and musician, has come out with his latest ‘Names of the Women’, which talks about women whose roles were suppressed, reduced, or erased in the Gospels, and in a way offers a new retelling of the Bible.
  11. Sonia Faleiro – An award-winning writer and the author of four books, Faleiro was born in Goa and now lives in London. Her book ‘The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing’ focuses on two teenagers who disappeared from their home in Katra Sadatganj in Uttar Pradesh. They were found hanging from a tree in a mango orchard the following day. She is the founder of the literary mentorship program South Asia Speaks.
  12. Akwaeke Emezi- This bestselling author of ‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ has come out with her fourth book ‘Dear Senthuran: A black spirit memoir’. A Nigerian Igbo and Tamil writer, child of a Nigerian father and an Indian Tamil mother, was one of TIME Magazine’s Next Generation Leaders. This honor recognizes the work and advocacy of rising stars “building a better future.”
  13. Sanjay Gupta – A celebrated Indian American neurosurgeon, medical reporter, and writer, Gupta in his new book ‘Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age’ debunks common myths about aging and cognitive decline. A chief medical correspondent for CNN, Gupta explains whether it is mentally healthier to play video games that test memory and processing speed or engage in idle social interaction.
  14. Tasha Suri – The British fantasy award-winning author, who has established herself as a rising voice in fantasy inspired by South Asian culture, has come out with two books this year. Suri, a self-proclaimed “proud Punjabi”, rose to fame with her first duology of books’ Empire of Sand’ and ‘Realm of Ash’. Her debut novel ‘Empire of Sand’ was named one of the 100 best fantasy books of all time by TIME magazine last year. This year she released ‘The Jasmine Throne’, the first in her ‘Burning Kingdoms Trilogy’, and ‘What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix.’
  15. Manjeet Mann – Actress, playwright, screenwriter, and director, Mann has come out with her latest book ‘The Crossing’, which has already been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2022 and shortlisted for The Costa Children’s Book Award. The book is about two teenagers from opposite worlds and tells a story of hope and grief. Her debut novel ‘Run, Rebel’ was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2021.
  16. Sonora Jha –An essayist, novelist, researcher, and professor of journalism at Seattle University, Jha, in her latest book ‘How to raise a feminist son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family’ has come out with an empowering book that offers much-needed insight and actionable advice. Jha, who had a successful journalism career in India, moved to Singapore and then to the US to earn a Ph.D. in political communication.
  17. Mayukh Sen – A queer of Bengali descent, Sen’s debut book ‘Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America’ is a biographical essay about seven immigrant women who passionately cooked their home food, and had a major influence on the way Americans cook, eat, and talk about food. Sen taught food journalism at NYU and was awarded the James Beard Award for his profile of a restaurateur who vanished from the public eye.
  18. Rahul Raina – Sold in a six-way auction, ‘How to Kidnap the Rich’ by Raina, who divides his time between Oxford and Delhi, has received lots of praise for its fast-paced, satirical, Delhi-based plot that tells the story of India’s education system, state of affairs and society. The screen rights of the book, which have already been sold into translation into numerous languages, have been bought by Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed.
  19. Anjali Enjeti – A former attorney, organizer, journalist, and MFA instructor near Atlanta who teaches creative writing in Reinhardt’s Master of Fine Arts program. She published two books this year. ‘Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance and Social Change’ details her unique heritage – her father is Indian-American, and her mother is half Puerto Rican and half Austrian – and debut novel ‘The Parted Earth.’ The novel starts with the 1947 partition when the British left, and India was divided to create Pakistan, then jumps to a troubled woman in present-day Atlanta. She is unaware of her roots in the violence of that turbulent time.
  20. Neel Patel – Author and screenwriter, Patel came out with his debut novel ‘Tell Me How to Be’ that tells a tale of the love story of a mother and son trying to figure out how to be in the world. Patel’s debut story collection, ‘If You See Me, Do not Say Hi,’ was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was longlisted for the Story Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize in 2018.
  21. Suchitra Vijayan – Vijayan earlier worked for the UN war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and co-founded a legal aid project in Cairo for Iraqi refugees. For her debut book ‘Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India,’ she undertook a 9000-mile journey over seven years to India’s borderlands. An award-winning photographer, she is the founder of the Polis Project, a hybrid research and journalism organization.
  22. Shaheen Chishti – An Indian-British author’s debut book ‘The Granddaughter Project’ highlights the adversities that women had to face during national and global crises. The book tells the shared experience of three different women, who collectively use their voices to improve societal attitudes. He is a descendant of the revered Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. His shrine is also known as the Ajmer Sharif Dargah.
  23. Sonal Kohli – The writer, who grew up in Delhi and now lives in Washington, came out with her debut collection of short stories ‘The House Next to the Factory.’ Set in Delhi between 1980 and 2010, the nine interlinked stories follow a woman and her post-Partition immigrant family, and explore their aspirations and small-scale ambitions. It also charts the turbulent three decades of a ‘rising’ India.
  24. Anuradha D. Rajurkar – The winner of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Emerging Voices Award, Rajurkar, who was a public school teacher by day, writer by night, in her debut novel ‘American Betiya’ takes a look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. The book is about a teen’s forbidden interracial love, her immigrant family, and her boyfriend’s desire to fit into her culture.
  25. Neema Shah – With a career in marketing, specializing in TV, digital, and brand strategy for companies including the BBC in the UK, Shah has come out with her debut novel ‘Kololo Hill’ which is inspired by her grandparents’ lives – who left India for East Africa in the 1940s – as well as those who were expelled from Uganda by brutal ruler Idi Amin.
  26. Sanjana Anshu Sathian – This American novelist’s debut book ‘Gold Diggers’ explores a familiar story of belongingness and otherness experienced by a generation of Indian American children. The Washington Post has described this book as one of the 10 Best Books of 2021 and it is being adapted for television by Mindy Kaling, the American actress, and producer.
  27. Sini Panicker – an Indian-American writer is a chemist by training and works for the US government as a heroin profiler. In her debut novel ‘Sita: Now You Know Me’ she showcases Sita – from Ramayana, India’s first epic poem written by Valmiki, as a strong, captivating, modern voice originating from an ancient time.
  28. Aruni Kashyap – Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of Georgia, Athens, US, and an editor-at-large with the Southern Review of Books, Kashyap has come out with his book ‘There is No Good Time for Bad News,’ an account of the tragedy caused by the decades-long brutality in northeast India.
  29. Nawaaz Ahmed – Before turning to writing, Indian-born Ahmed was a computer scientist researching search algorithms for Yahoo. His debut novel ‘Radiant Fugitives’ has stirred literary circuits. The book grapples with politics, race, and religion while charting the progress of three generations of a Muslim Indian family.
  30. Rajiv Mohabir – This Indo-Caribbean American poet released his memoir ‘Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir.’ He addresses coming of age as an Indo-Guyanese queer poet. The term Antiman is a Caribbean Hindustani slur for gay men.

This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.

Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.