Event One— Unbelongings: Across Continents: Anis Shivani and Novuyo Tshuma in conversation with Omar El Akkad

Brooding on Home and Identity

Watching Omar El Akaad in conversation with Novuyo Tshuma and Anis Shivani at the Allen Education Center of the Houston Asia Society was an experience in witnessing three brilliant minds blend amidst topical themes like ‘stereotypical expectations for immigrant narratives,’‘language style,’ and ‘the sense of home and rootedness in the writer’s life.’

Again and again, the conversation sought to expose the underlay of what ‘home’ means for the writer of foreign origins who finds themselves enmeshed in the need to remain true to a their connection to what universal truthentails.

El Akaad’s insight into the works of his interviewees— Anis Shivani is acclaimed author of several books including ‘Karachi Raj’ and ‘Anatolia and Other Stories’ while NovuyoTshuma’s novel ‘House of Stone’ has been recently released in the U.K— served to steer both Shivani and Tshuma into talking about their journeys to producing their books (it took Shivani five years of bad drafts for ‘Karachi Raj,’ while for Tshuma, her protagonist didn’t start to come to life till the sixth draft of the novel); to their perception of what home meant to them (Tshuma and Shivani agree on the constant feeling of alienation a writer experiences; home is nowhere but everywhere at the same time); to the various literary styles deployed in their works (to Omar, Shivani’s novel on Karachi is Dickensian in its treatment of class and society, whilst Tshuma’s use of language is unique in its fluid reflection of character).

The Q&A session afterwards was no less interesting as members of the audience sought to knowwhat surprising reactions Shivani and Tshuma may have received from readers of their works. In Tshuma’s words, she was astonished but pleased to see readers compare her protagonist, Zamani, with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. To her, the ‘cross cultural comparison’ was a different take from the stereotypical affiliation of most African works with classic African writers like Chinua Achebe.

Shivani’s source of surprise however, came from the energy manifested by younger literary critics who analyzed the metaphysical aspects of his work as much as they analyzed therepresentations of day to day truisms of life in Pakistan’s Karachi. To Shivani, their focus echoed a predominant view of his that a writer’s ability to seek abstractions in reality remains indispensable to revealing a deeper truth in today’s fractured world.

Event Two— Poetic Imagination: With Jasminne Mendez, Jovan Mays, Rich Levy and Robin Davidson. Moderated by Kurt Heinzelman.

The Poet and Identity

Four noteworthy poets: Robin Davidson, Jovan Mays, Rich Levy and Jasminne Mendez sat with Kurt Heinzelman and a riveted audience to discuss topics surrounding the poet’s influence in today’s political climate. The event kicked off with Kurt opening up to floor to individual readings from each poet, after which the conversation moved on to issues ranging from ekphrastic expressions to the uses of poetry in today’s children’s classrooms.

Robin Davidson, a poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Houston-Downtown, read from a poem titled ‘To Speak of Rivers’ where lines such as ‘The woman in their midst shines angle, almost amber,’ shadowed an earlier comment in which she expressed the thought that “Poetry serves an enormous public function in terms of human empathy.” To Davidson, the contemporary duty of the poet will remain political in line with its nature since the beginning of time: To her, “Poetry for hundreds of years has been political. The thing that is most powerful about it today is when a particular culture is struggling with their democracy or a place for all of us at the table. Poetry is a way to go beyond the tweet, to make us stop, to dwell, to think, to feel things deeply. It kind of moves us towards empathy. Poetry does bear witness.’

Rich Levy’s ideas about the role of poetry followed similar lines. As a jazz obsessive, Rich considers the employment of poetry in the description of jazz an intriguing phenomenon. This, to him, bears great portent in ascribing an intimate ‘person to person communication’ between poet and audience to yield a different expression.

With Jovan and Jasminne, it is even more important to consider the activist standpoint of poetry where words and performance alike can be utilized to awake and enlighten the wider public to issues ranging from invisible disability to child education. Jovan’s poem was a tribute to new Orleans, with lines such as ‘Pregnant pathogens polluted her pathways,’ painting a portrait of location and beautiful desperation. For Jasminne who shared readings from her book of essays and poetry, her hope for a future generation of readers is that her work would reveal “The idea that I carry multitudes within me and my personhood— woman, black, disabled, a mother. And all of it carries into my writing. Hopefully looking back at this time period, they will be able to see all those intersections.”

Event Three— Dreams and Dystopias: Omar El Akkad in conversation with Milan Vaishnav

Radicalization and Nationalism

Omar El Akkad’s insights on writing his 2017 dystopian novel ‘American War’ were a delight to hear during his hour-long conversation with writer Milan Vaishnav. To Omar, who comes from a background in journalism, his accrued ‘residual experience’ from ten years of journalism found a more natural outlet in fiction. In El Akkad’s words, “Fiction is where I go to explore questions.” Thus, between busy daytime hours he established a schedule of working on his novel ‘between midnight and 5am.’ He also spent ‘a ton of time reading up on the first American civil war.”

After a year of research, El Akkad felt he had a structure in place, which later transformed to his 2017 debut, a work which explores the questions of radicalization and the gradual adapting of the human spirit to pain and prolonged distress. In response to Vaishnav’s questions on the factors responsible for shaping his female protagonist’s character, Akkad sums up his influences as stemming from the climate crisis in certain parts of Louisiana, the question of nationalism serving as an overlay for stubbornness in the book, and the various trigger points that exist for people in erstwhile traumatic conditions.

Akkad points out to an absorbedcrowd that the book took 12 drafts to get to its present state. When asked by a member of the audience ofinfluencesfrom other dystopian books, Akkad explains his initial surprise when readers referred to his novel as dystopian. The term he would rather use for ‘American War’ was ‘dislocative.’When asked about his next project by Vaishnav, Akkad is sure to point out that his next piece (a work of fantasy) aims to be quieter.