When I left my tech career in 2012 to forge a new path as a writer, I never imagined I’d get back into the startup world as the founder of a bootstrapped digital venture called Desi Books, but that became my personal mission.
Desi is how some South Asians, especially across the global diaspora, describe ourselves (although there’s robust debate about some of the ways this label has been applied over the past few decades). South Asia is a hugely diverse region of eight countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. While all of these countries have a shared ancient history, they also have distinct cultures, languages, histories, arts, and literatures.
And yet South Asian literature is often seen as a monolith. Although publishing gatekeepers are being more inclusive, the works of writers of color are typically marketed to highlight the same few cultural stereotypes and tropes. Each year in the U.S., a handful of books by desi writers gets chosen as representative of the entire region by well-meaning reviewers and journalists at major media outlets. Generally, these books conform to Western sensibilities and expectations. Often, we get what Maxine Hong Kingston has famously called “cultural misreadings”: instead of situating our books within extensive, diverse South Asian literary traditions, these reductive assessments reinforce preconceived biases and notions about our cultures and societies.
While this approach is meant to draw more readers to these works, it does so at the expense of readers from within the same desi communities that these books are about. This troubling dynamic shortchanges writers and all their potential readers—the desi ones who stay away from books hyped in this manner and the nondesi ones who find that the books aren’t, in fact, what they’ve been touted to be. What good is the emphasis on #OwnVoices across the publishing ecosystem when those voices are not marketed to or received by the very communities they represent?
To be fair, various desi-centric venues in the U.S. and the U.K. have been working for years to help desi writers find their readers. But, with notable exceptions, these venues also focus on the same few books picked up by major nondesi media outlets. And while several outlets and venues within South Asia cover books, their numbers and coverage have both been rapidly dwindling for over a decade.
Given all of the above, I founded Desi Books in April 2020 with the twofold aim of connecting South Asian writers and readers and showcasing the diversity and plenitude of our books. We began promoting our titles with a monthly podcast interview, but it quickly became clear that serving this literary community would require a more tailored approach:
• Not all books and writers lend themselves to the audio interview format. So we added regular book excerpts read by the authors and a text interview series.
• Outside of academia, there are few sustaining narratives about our literary lineages and genealogies. So we began asking certain writers to share the favorite desi books that had inspired theirs. Soon, there will also be regular professional reviews that place our books within our particular literary traditions (Anglophone and regional-language ones, local and diasporic, contemporary and classic) and explore related sociocultural, historical, and political interpretations in an accessible manner.
• A rising tide lifts all boats, but to raise this tide, we readers and writers must first see ourselves as a literary community instead of competitors vying for limited seats at the big publishing table. So we introduced features to spotlight desi professionals from across the publishing ecosystem—indie publishers, booksellers, editors, instructors, and more—and highlight their varied expertise and knowledge, and features that answer culture-specific questions about writing and publishing that aren’t being addressed anywhere else.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Setting up a digital media operation has involved a steep learning curve and considerable personal resource investment. Seeking out lesser-known, lesser-marketed desi works has meant more research and outreach efforts. Along the way, there’s been some backlash from within the desi community because they want more genres covered than resources currently allow. The silence from established desi writers has been somewhat disheartening.
That said, there are signs that we are bringing South Asian writers and readers together. We aim to make Desi Books a self-funding, must-read literary archive of news and views about desi literature from around the world. And we hope that all those who envision an inclusive, diverse, multiracial, multilingual, multi-ethnic world will support such intentional, thriving spaces to celebrate discrete cultural roots and heritage.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic. She is the founder of Desi Books and teaches creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas.