Longtime arts writer Nalini Iyer • Courtesy

More than 20 years ago, I was having lunch with local author Bharti Kirchner when she asked if I would be interested in doing book reviews for the International Examiner. I was then a junior academic with young children and had never written anything besides academic essays. I enthusiastically accepted her offer to introduce me to IE Arts Editor, Alan Chong Lau.

Since then I have been a regular writer for the publication, focusing mostly on book and film reviews from South Asia and the South Asian diaspora in North America.

Getting to know and working with Alan has been a joyous experience. He has his finger on the pulse of the Asian American book, film, and arts community and through our work together,  I have discovered writers, books, and films before they became award winners and famous.

I remember meeting Kiran Desai for coffee in 2006 when she had just published The Inheritance of Loss. I’d read the book before I met her, noting how much she is her mother, Anita Desai’s daughter in how she writes about people, landscapes, and emotions. She was warm, soft-spoken, and easy to talk to, and this experience remains one of my most memorable author encounters. Not too long after, she won The Booker Prize for that novel.

Another rewarding aspect of my work with Alan has been receiving books and advance review copies from publishers. Every few days, a box arrives at my doorstep filled with books, and I feel like a 6-year-old at Christmas eagerly unpacking gifts.

My mail carrier, who has served our neighborhood for many years, once asked me, “What do you do? How come you get this many books? Do you actually read them all?” I proudly told her about the IE and she left promising me that she was going to start reading it!

A stack of books sent from IE arts editor, Alan Chong Lau • Courtesy

In my several decades as a writer for the IE, I’ve seen how much the Asian American literary landscape has changed.

When Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong published Aiiieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writing in 1974, it was a historical moment that laid the foundations for naming and recognizing marginalized Asian American writers. Their anthology primarily focused on Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino American writers and remains a foundational text in the study of Asian American literature.

The book emerged within a decade of the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the doors to a huge wave of immigration from Asia. Now the term “Asian American” includes people tracing their heritage to some 40 nations and whose history in the United States goes back to colonial times. One such “new” addition to the canon of Asian American literature is South Asian American writing.

I have studied South Asian American writing since the early 1990s and have published academic works on the experiences of this community including the book I co-authored with Amy Bhatt, Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest (2013).

As Bhatt and I note, the history of South Asian Americans to this region goes back to the early 20th Century. It is not a history rooted in the Chinatown International District, but in the agricultural and timber industries in Bellingham, north of Seattle, to the Imperial Valley in California.

Though our community has endured its share of xenophobia, racist attacks, prejudice, and violence, popular media presents us as largely composed of tech entrepreneurs and wealthy Eastside suburbanites. In its commitment to telling authentic stories, and particularly in exploring the arts and culture, the IE has steadfastly combatted stereotypes and emphasized the diversity and heterogeneity of our communities.

Nalini Iyer’s refrigerator at home, covered in art gifted to her from Alan Chong Lau • Photo by Nalini Iyer

As the IE looks to the future, I suggest that we consider the heterogeneity of the Asian American community and its geographic dispersion in the region. Not only do we have a generation of readers (second, third, and even fourth generation Asian Americans) who read digital publications, but they are also eager to see their lives and experiences represented in stories.

While the IE’s roots are based in the  CID and we must continue to nurture that history, we should also broaden our readership by establishing a stronger online presence. The simple act of me sharing some of my articles on Facebook has reached audiences across the U.S. and in South Asia. Imagine how many more readers we could reach with a stronger digital IE.

Writing for the IE is a very rewarding experience. Writing about South Asian American literature and film has deepened my scholarly expertise and made me a better teacher. I remain grateful to Bharti Kirchner for planting the seed, and to Alan Chong Lau and the editor(s) of IE for supporting my passion. Happy 50th. Here’s to celebrating more milestones with you, International Examiner!   

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