On Thursday, October 22nd, the Indo-American Arts Council kicks off its Second Annual Literary Festival in New York — a weekend-long celebration of the most renowned and distinctive voices from the subcontinent, the states, and the oceans in between. At the helm of IAAC is its energetic and influential Executive & Artistic Director, Aroon Shivdasani. Since founding the organization, Shivdasani has overseen the execution of many groundbreaking artistic and cultural events — the Erasing Borders dance and art exhibitions each year, book launches for authors like Aasif Mandvi and Sandip Roy, and evenings of Indian classical music by famed instrumentalists and ustads — and has won awards for her dedication and service to the South Asian community and culture. Kajal is thrilled that Aroon found a minute to chat with us about the upcoming literary festival — here are a few highlights.
What were some of the highlights from last year’s first literary festival? What inspired you most about how it went?
Last year’s entire festival was a roaring success! We had overflowing audiences and standing room only in the rooms themselves. The Q&A sessions were extremely exciting with hands shooting up all over and rapid-fire questions and answers. Clearly, the audience was engaged with our awesome authors! I was particularly delighted by our Closing Night session with Ayad Akhtar whose “Disgraced” was still on Broadway, by our “Playwrights” session, by our “Page to Screen” session (with Mira Nair & Nandita Das), and with Salman Rushdie’s extremely fun, witty chat at Opening Night, which set the stage for the rest of the festival!
What can audiences expect at Hunter that’s different from last year’s festival?
I’m sure audiences at Hunter expect the same level of expertise and intellect as was presented at Columbia last year. However, we have a foodie stream of sessions with Madhur Jaffrey, Padma Lakshmi, Suvir Saran, Vikas Khanna, and a bunch of other chef-authors: Ram Jethmalani, all set to fire us up with today’s political morass in India; Mira Nair and Sabrina Dhawan, ready to share their views on staging Monsoon Wedding on Broadway; Mahmood Mamdani, Akeel Bilgrami, and JJ Robinson, all set to discuss the current crisis concerning migrants and refugees… You’ll just have to check our schedule for all the other madly exciting sessions!
What conversations have been in the works in the months leading up to the literary festival?
It was a combination of many factors. We put out a call for submissions, we brainstormed sessions we would like to present, and, of course, we also needed to host super exciting Opening and Closing sessions.
Can you speak about some of the panels out of the festival lineup you’re most excited about?
There are many more sessions that I am excited about — and being a history buff, the panel on Historical Fiction [with authors Khushwant Singh, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, and Sudipto Roy Choudhury] clearly catches my fancy.
How is your staff harnessing social media platforms to promote the literary festival?
We’re putting out information on all the social media platforms and are happy to share them with you! Twitter: @IAArtsCouncil, #LitFest2015. Instagram: iaacny. Facebook: Indo-American Arts Council.
Who did you want to have at this year’s festival, but unfortunately couldn’t attend?
We really wanted to include a medical panel with Siddhartha Mukherjee, Deepak Chopra, and a bunch of other super medical authors and speakers. Unfortunately, they’re travelling during our festival. Another panel I wanted was “India Then & Now” with William Dalrymple and Shashi Tharoor — both have books very pertinent to this subject — once again, neither could make it. (Willie was just here and Shashi has elections at the same time.)
19th-century Lucknow was one of South Asia’s many historic centers of refined literary and artistic culture. Would you say that your work as IAAC’s Executive & Artistic Director strives to make New York a 21st-century hub for South Asian culture?
New York City has an amazing diverse cultural landscape. I founded the IAAC with a passionate mission to ensure a valid, recognized, visible place for the performing, visual and literary arts from the Indian subcontinent within this prolific landscape. I believe our programs through the years demonstrate this commitment. I do hope our South Asian cultural presence continues to grow, and is recognized as a culture of consequence and excellence.
What advice do you have for emerging authors?
Write. Do not be apprehensive of using your own voice. Readers should hear your voice in your work. Edit, edit, edit — make sure you aren’t rambling. Attend literary festivals, meet other authors, meet publishers and literary agents. Talk, discuss, write.
What are the stories that the South Asian–American community desperately needs told? What books need to be written, films made, experiences related?
Artists from the South Asian–American community need to write unashamedly about their lives, experiences, imaginations, thoughts — without necessarily trying to represent a community. They are who they are, and should be true to themselves when writing, producing, filming, speaking… If their work harks back to their heritage or celebrates it — so be it. If not, that’s okay, too. We don’t need to be put into a box and labeled.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s latest book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days, and am thoroughly enjoying it! He writes so beautifully that I often re-read certain passages, reveling in his incredible skill with words!
This interview has been edited for clarity.
For more information, a schedule of events, and to purchase tickets, visit www.iaac.us.