“fiction is an offering, a prayer, a universe…”

Arundhati Roy reads a passage from her new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness; image of rock star Patti Smith in the background

“Happiness is an act of resistance,” Arundhati Roy states in response to a question about how she remains positive, despite threats that she faces. “They want us to hunch our shoulders, be afraid, not laugh, act a certain way. It’s important for us to insist on our entire bandwidth.”

At a reading and talk organized by Scripps College and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at Los Angeles’ Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Arundhati captures a packed house. When conversing with journalist Héctor Tobar, Arundhati Roy says that the inspiration for her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was germinating within her for the past twenty years, during which time characters in the novel “visited her until they eventually moved in.”

The nerve center of the book is in an old Delhi neighborhood, where Arundhati often wanders, she explains. Though she doesn’t remember the details of the occasion in Jantar Mantar, she says that she might have been giving a talk to students after which she invited them to join her for tea in Jantar Mantar. There, they found an abandoned baby, and no one—none of the intellectuals or thinkers—knew how to respond. The encounter led to the birth of Anjum,a hijra, one of her novel’s protagonists.

The second half of the The Ministry of Utmost Happiness delves into Kashmir, where “the world’s largest military occupation is occurring,” states Arundhati. “We’re supposed to applaud at what’s happening in Kashmir…When you go there, you’re astonished by the false news you’re fed.”

Arundhati talks about the power of fiction, which she says is “an offering, a prayer, a universe… “ When talking about Kashmir, she adds that the only way to convey the reality of events unfolding in Kashmir is through the power of fiction, so readers can ask questions such as whether it’s acceptable for nation-states to conduct the kind of violence that the Indian government has launched in Kashmir.

During the question and answer segment of the evening, the focus remains on Kashmir; strikingly, only women line up at the microphones. One woman announces, “Actually, I am Kashmiri…I have seen that in real life when 50 women were raped. I was six years old, and I had seen those women come from hospital with the blood.”

Arundhati nods, “You’re talking about Kunan Poshpora.” Both women are referring to 1991 when Indian soldiers gang-raped more than 23 women.

A podcast of Arundhati’s reading and conversation can be found on the Los Angeles library website.


September 2002, Words for Peace: Image of Arundhati Roy on screen while her recording of “Come September” is played via speaker; photo by Paul Hester

Listening to Arundhati brings up memories of how, 15 years ago, my journalist sister Beena Sarwar introduced me to Arundhati, and how through Anthony Arnove’s help, Arundhati participated in my Houston-based arts organization’s first Words for Peace production, a series that we created in response to the changing landscape after 9/11. More than 400 audience members showed up at DiverseWorks, an artspace that donated space to Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB).

A year before Skype was launched, we used a simple speaker telephone, which we connected to a microphone, and projected images on the screen as writers Ahmed Rashid (Lahore), Irena Klepfisz (New York) and Naomi Shihab Nye (San Antonio) shared work from where they were based. Houston-based notable writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa and Farnoosh Moshiri read work alongside high school students, while dancer Rathna Kumar opened the evening with a performance. Many peace and justice organizations set up tables to create resistance.

That week, Arundhati was on her way to New Mexico to accept the Lannan Foundation’s Cultural Freedom Prize, and was unavailable to read live at Words for Peace, as we had scheduled. Instead, I recorded her at Houston’s Pacifica Station, KPFT 90.1 FM, the same spot where I interviewed rock star Patti Smith several times.

Last night, Patti’s image is projected behind Arundhati, and I am struck by how both women continue to speak out and offer resistance—and remain integral parts of my artist-activist journey.

To view more images from VBB’s Words for Peace, please click here.

30 Jun 2017 · 12:11:24 AM

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chand raat in little bangladesh…

My friend’s daughter getting her hand decorated with mehndi/henna on Chand Raat

On Chand Raat, I team up with my friend Shaista, and we drive our daughters to Virgil Middle School in Los Angeles’ Little Bangladesh in east Hollywood. Though we arrive after 9:30 pm, the courtyard is packed with a crowd. On one side of the courtyard, snacks and tea are served, while on another, saris and shalwar kurtas are on display for women to purchase. In the center is a stage, and the microphone moves between an announcer, a DJ or a singer. Everyone on the mic—and all around us—speaks Bengali.

While Shaista, her daughter and I take a break to sip tea and eat pani-puri, we send Minal on a mission to find mehndi/henna.

She returns with information. “There’s a long line, but women are doing mehndi there!” She points to a section of the courtyard where we haven’t ventured as yet.

We finish our snack and head toward the mehndi area, but the line is long. Shaista’s daughter sights an enterprising woman sitting on the side, who has set up her own mehndi table. Shaista and I wander off to look at saris, but Minal and Shaista’s daughter wait to talk to the mehndi-woman. When we return, the girls’ hands are almost done, but because the woman is running low on her mehndi cones, she only decorates the backs of the girls’ hands, and not the palms also.

Still, the girls are satisfied, and we walk away as the celebration is about to close.

Minal’s hand

Crowd thronging in Virgil Middle’s School’s sport’s courtyard

24 Jun 2017 · 10:09:42 PM

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reconnecting circles in a backyard...

November 2009: Audience members in my Houston backyard at a production I created, Honoring Dissent/Descent, to honor my father Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, and living activist Daniel Bustamante; photo by Eric Hester

A decade ago, I met Lauren Eggert-Crowe in Atlanta at the Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, where I was part of a panel entitled “The Imagination of Displacement“—a subject that I continue to explore through my writings and visual art. At the time, Lauren was producing a zine, Galatea’s Pants, which she generated as a hand-produced publication, resisting the ease of computers. That year, she conducted a phone interview with me, which she published in her zine.

Lauren went on to complete the MFA program at the University of Arizona, while I directed my energy toward motherhood and developing new productions through Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB). Busy with our lives, we dropped out of touch.

But six months ago, shortly after my family’s move to southern California, I attended LitCrawl to support Pat Alderete and liz gonzález, my friends from the Macondo Writers Workshop. That night, I ran into Lauren—who was also performing—and learned that she had moved to LA a few years ago. Since our fall 2016 encounter, I’ve seen Lauren many times at Women Who Submit, a support group for women writers, which she co-administers.

One of the first things that Lauren said to me was: “I’d love to invite you for a reading in my backyard.”

I was moved by her invitation, especially since I have a long history of experiencing and creating art in residential homes. While growing up in Karachi, my parents often opened out our living room and garden for poetry readings, music, and dance performances. And in my more recent “home,” Houston, I created art installations and collaborated with artists to transform residential homes into performance and interactive art spaces.

Lauren is organizing a backyard reading (something she does often), and on Saturday, June 24, I will read my work alongside three women writers—Iris De Anda, Melissa Chadburn, and Myriam Gurba—in her backyard. If you’re in LA and available to attend, please message me so I can share the address!


November 2009: Audience members viewing my installation Listening from Within at a production Honoring Dissent/Descent, that I created to honor my father Dr. Mohammad Sarwar, and living activist Daniel Bustamante; photo by Eric Hester

22 Jun 2017 · 03:44:31 PM

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cricket in pasadena, california...

Each Saturday, I walk past soccer and baseball fields to reach the nearby farmer’s market. This morning, as I cross the main road and enter the park, I stop in my tracks. In the field where children usually practice baseball, I see a sight that I haven’t encountered in the US: two wickets, a man holding a cricket bat, and a bowler getting ready to spin the ball. South Asian men scatter around the field, preparing to catch the ball.

While growing up in Karachi, I used to skip school to watch test matches in Karachi Stadium, but it’s been a long time since I’ve paid attention to the game. However, even I know that tomorrow will be an electrifying day in the cricket world: Pakistan will face off against India in the International Cricket Council’s finals at UK’s Oval. The Pakistani team is a surprise entrant into the final—the team is ranked eighth out of eight. Of course, a final contains high stakes, on top of which any time India and Pakistan play each other, rivalry is bound to arise, especially since over the past decade, the teams have played few matches against each other. During my childhood, Pakistani and Indian teams regularly crossed the border to play against each other, but since the 2007 Mumbai bombing in which Pakistan-based terrorists were implicated, and the 2009 Lahore bombing in which six Sri Lankan players were injured, Pakistan has been declared unsafe to host international games and the team has struggled to improve its ranking and morale.

Watching the cricket players in Victory Park, I realize that they set up wickets in anticipation of tomorrow’s game, which is bound to evoke national hysteria on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Later today all around the globe, people will turn on televisions at different parts of the night so they can watch each minute of a match that could be boring, or just as easily, a gripping experience.

17 Jun 2017 · 10:21:21 PM

6/19/17 Update: In a dramatic upset, Pakistan raced to victory by a lead of 180 runs; click here to read writer Kamila Shamsie’s story about the game.

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assumptions…

I stand in the security line at Houston’s Hobby Airport behind a desi man, who is shorter than I am and wears glasses. As always, people are trying to move through security lines as quickly as possible. A guard guard tries to expedite the process by guiding passengers to different kiosks where we can have our tickets and identifications checked.

Glancing at the desi in front of me, the guard nods in our direction and says, “You can go now.”

The man scuttles forward. I remain where I am.

“You’re not together?” the guard asks.

“No, we’re not together,” I respond, holding back my impulse to say: Just because we have similar hair and skin color doesn’t mean we’re related.

Once back in Pasadena, I stop at a pet shop to purchase cat litter.

“Namaste!” calls out the cash registrar as I finish my purchase and push my cart toward the sliding glass doors.

“Thank you,” I respond, again holding back on the impulse to inform him that if he wants to abide by my custom to bid me farewell, he should say: khuda-hafiz.

06 May 2017 · 10:06:43 PM

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borderlines book launch…

photo by Jimmy Castillo

I spend a fleeting two days in Houston to kick off Voices Breaking Boundaries’ latest publication, Borderlines Volume Three. The publication, co-edited by Margot Backus PhD and Maria Gonzalez PhD and designed by Joshua Turner, contains essays, poems, interviews, and visual art by contributors along border regions in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, India, Pakistan) and North America (Canada, Mexico, US-Mexico border, Houston).

The reading features Houston-based contributors, and I am moved by the warmth of friends and community members who join me at Brazos Bookstore to celebrate Voices Breaking Boundaries final Borderlines volume. Brazos has stocked all three volumes for the event, and Volume Three sells out at record speed (before leaving town, I restock the publications at Brazos).

After the reading, my friend artist and activist Hope Sanford opens out her home so we can gather and celebrate. The evening is bittersweet because I know that this time, my time with friends will be brief.

For photos by Jimmy Castillo, please visit, VBB’s Flickr site. To learn more about Voices Breaking Boundaries Borderlines publications, please click here .

03 May 2017 · 10:04:00 PM

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finding refuge in a garden…

foliage at the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens’ front entrance

This week, I camped out at Huntington Garden’s café to complete a short story. To take a break, I stroll in the gardens, inhaling fragrance from the rose garden and savoring the foliage.


26 Apr 2017 · 09:42:55 PM

patti smith: use your voice!

2010: Patti Smith with me at KPFT Pacifica Radio 90.1 FM; photo by Burnell McCray. Listen to interview here

“I was on my way to Australia,” Patti Smith tells her fans, assembled at Los Angeles’ Teregram club. “And I thought, why not stop in LA? I hate long flights.” Because she’s only stopping off in LA, Patti tells us that the night’s show Horsin’ Around is informal, and that she and her Band, including legendary guitarist Lenny Kaye, will be “horsin’ around.”

But Patti’s performance is as classy as always: The night includes a mix of her own verses—“Dancin’ Barefoot,” “Redondo Beach,” “Blakean Years,” “Horses” and many more—mixed with political commentary, sing-alongs, and Dylan and Lou Reed songs.

To a crowd that cheers as she speaks, Patti doesn’t need to explain who she’s talking about when she says: “I knew him when he was 30 years old. You know, some people improve with age. His shit just expanded.” Still not naming her subject, she tells us that she doesn’t twitter, so she’s offering all her twitter to us in person.

Laughing about aging, Patti reminds the crowd that she and Lenny are both 70 years old, and that she now can repeat stories (which she doesn’t) just like her mother once did, and she talks about how her upper lip hair that once resembled Frida Kahlo’s has gravitated to her chin. “Goat hair!” she laughs.

For the encore, Smith, Kaye and her Band reappear on stage with Johnny Depp and Joe Perry to perform her classic “People Have the Power.” Reminding her fans to fill the streets and march with our hands empty and arms raised, she calls out: “Use your voice!”

In 2003, I met Patti at La Guardia Airport the day after a New York City protest against the US invasion of Iraq. I went on to interview Patti for KPFT 90.1 FM Pacifica Radio, and seven years later, she accepted my invitation to fly to Houston and read from her award-winning memoir Just Kids and perform her music.

05 Apr 2017 · 09:35:45 AM

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food truck galore...

smorgusburg print on a wooden table

Today, we meander into downtown LA to explore Smorgasburg, an initiative that sprung up last summer. Since then, every Sunday, gourmet restaurants park their food trucks in a warehouse parking lot, offering an array of dishes including paratha-tacos, drunken noodles, gourmet pizza, ice-cream, churros, a beer-garden, and more.

We arrive late and many trucks are already closing their flaps. Still, we manage to assemble on one table with paper-boxes that overflow with noodles, pizza, churros and tacos. Gates are being closed as we exit the parking. We know we’ll return soon.

02 Apr 2017 · 08:47:52 PM

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no borders, no walls....

a fence dividing two nations

To celebrate spring break, the family and I drive down the coastline to visit San Diego. On our last morning, we dip down to San Ysidro to catch a glimpse of the US-Mexico fence behind which lurks Tijuana. Around us, men and women of all ages walk down the main road, pulling small suitcases, carrying backpacks, or pushing strollers. Parking lots are full of locked cars, and we sight a minivan that’s loading up with passengers who will soon cross to visit family on the other side, carrying with them the hope that they will be allowed to reenter.

Two days later, I am back in Pasadena, and I take off for a hike along the Sam Merrill trail. As I turn off to begin my hike, I am struck by the silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains, lush and green after the recent torrent of rains. This is what landscape should look like: No fences and certainly no walls to prevent humans and wildlife from crossing an artificial line.


the start of the Sam Merrill trail in Altadena, California

27 Mar 2017 · 16:43:42 AM

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the movement, a mural and a tent…

a mural in front of Los Angeles’ Greyhound Station

Almost a week has passed since the last round of protesters at Standing Rock were pushed out or arrested.

The Guardian reports: “Amid the anger and sadness over the eviction of the camp, however, water protectors expressed determination to keep fighting for indigenous and environmental rights.

“‘The closing of the camp is not the end of a movement or fight; it is a new beginning,’ said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, in a statement. ‘They cannot extinguish the fire that Standing Rock started. It burns within each of us.’”

In downtown Los Angeles, across from the Greyhound Station, a mural and a tent express solidarity.

28 Feb 2017 · 11:49:39 AM

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all in a day…

“That’s Andy Warhol’s Rolls Royce,” says a man at the entrance, pointing to the burgundy 1974 Rolls Royce with a New York license plate reading “WARHOL” that greets visitors upon entering the Revolver gallery in Santa Monica. As we talk, I learn that I’m talking to Ron Rivlin an entrepreneur who owns the gallery, the Rolls, as well as all the Warhol prints and sculptures at the Warhol Revisited exhibition.

Invited by fellow parent and filmmaker John Heinsen, René, Minal, my mother and I are with John, his wife Lisa Quon and their children, viewing the Warhol Revisited exhibition. The touring show opened a few days ago, “coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Andy’s untimely death.” The show is free, but in order to attend, one must make an online appointment.

Inside the gallery, spaces are filled with Warhol’s soup prints, Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Mohammad Ali and Chairman Mao series alongside more prints and some sculpture. The gallery also offers a store and a room to view a documentary about Warhol.

“The Rolls Royce was first purchased by a man at Sotheby’s,” Rivlin tells me. “When he heard of my collection, he sold the car to me with a special discount.”

Upon learning that I recently relocated from Houston to Los Angeles, Rivlin says: “I’d love to tour the show in Houston. But I don’t want to work with museums. I’d rather rent a space where I can control what I do. For example, this is a free show, the way Andy would have wanted. It’s accessible to all. And I want to sell the art.” He points at the walls: “All this work is for sale. I have more upstairs…”

Later on in the evening, René and I head out again, this time with our friend Shaista Parveen to Viva Cantina in Burbank for a concert by rock icon Alejandro Escovedo; René has known Alejandro since René’s Austin days more than twenty-five years ago.

Since this is a blog post where I try to post minimal text, I won’t share details about other highlights of the day: ramen noodles in Little Tokyo, dessert in Santa Monica’s Sweet Lady Jane café, and the double rainbow on our drive back from Santa Monica.

Some days are just more full than others.

A selfie with Alejandro and René at Viva Cantina

18 Feb 2017 · 11:47:10 PM

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the invasion of plastic…

Today, before heading out to Karachi Literature Festival at the Beach Luxury Hotel, filmmaker Tehmina Ahmed and I carve out time to visit Khajoor Bazaar. Located in old Karachi, the bazaar offers walking lanes lined with open stalls selling dates from around Pakistan as well as imported from the Middle East, alongside cloth, spices, and other household goods.

Here, many years ago, I discovered beads made with nutmeg, cardamom, clove, and other spices; A shopkeeper told me the garlands are used in parts of Sindh as gifts for brides; the garlands also served as inspiration for “Reclaiming Home,” an art installation I created in 2013.

Today, I visit the bazaar to replenish my stock since the necklaces I bought years ago have lost fragrance. I find the dangling beads in one shop but upon closer examination, I notice that the cloves have been replaced by black plastic pellets.

“Too expensive to use real spice,” the shopkeeper tells me. “I can make better ones for you if you can pick them up in a few days.”

Tehmina and I wander further down the lane stop at another shop where spice-beads dangle, again with black plastic pellets. The shopkeeper invites us inside the stall and holds up 15 necklaces that are made with real clove, priced at Rs.150 ($1.50) each, more than ten times the price of garlands with plastic. I purchase the full set of 15 beads.

“That’s all I have,” he tells me. “No one buys real necklaces anymore,” He, too, offers to make me more if I pre-order.

The conversation reminds me of my 2010 trip to Mauripur where artists create truck art. Back then, I was looking for a buraq sticker and was told the same thing: No one buys the buraq stickers any more. That spring, I had more time and was able to pre-order images for the art car I was co-creating in Houston. Since the buraq image is considered pagan, religious reasons were driving market changes. However, I felt hopeful when I picked up my stickers and the shopkeeper told me: “I ordered 100 more buraq stickers because of you. Maybe more people will buy and the sticker will become popular again…”

But this trip is short. I don’t have time to order additional garlands. I leave, wondering what sad changes I’ll encounter the next time I venture into Khajoor Bazaar.


buraq photo by Minal S at the home of truck art collector Anj Rana

11 Feb 2017 · 07:34:10 PM

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home again...

Even though my time in Karachi is brief, I’m able to carve out time to accept
Asif Farrukhi’s
long-standing invitation to visit Habib University, a liberal arts school that opened less than three years ago. Over an informal lunch, I listen to students share about their poetry slam initiative, their competition in India and their interest in revisiting Partition issues through their family lens. I also talk to students and staff about VBB, my work and the Borderlines project.

During a short tour, I visit the outdoor theater that has one wall painted with truck art (below), a bulletin board that contains Urdu newspaper clippings from August 1947, and the “smoking lounge,” an outdoor space, where students gather to chat and some play music (above).


9 Feb 2017 · 08:22:16 PM

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vacant airplane…

Empty airplane seats on my 16-hour journey from LAX to KHI, where I’m heading for just six days to participate in the annual Karachi Literature Festival, which will attract more than 100,000 attendees.

The Emirates airline representative at LAX airport says that flights have been running empty for a week since the executive order banning refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries, and the cancellation of more than 100,000 US visas.

“Starting next week,” she tells me, “we’re going to run smaller aircraft between the US and Dubai.”

But for today, I have four seats to myself. I spend most of the journey sleeping.

05:38:05 AM

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the big day...

author Kate DiCamillo with Minal

Ever since Minal learns that she won first place in the Scholastic Reader’s Raymie Nightingale contest, she has been waiting for young adult author Kate DiCamillo’s visit to her school, Blair Middle and High School.

The two months slip away in the midst of political unraveling around us, and this morning, when I drop Minal to school, the day feels like any other. But a few hours later, once I return to campus to join the middle school assembly, there is celebration in the air with balloons, posters and middle school students gathered in the gymnasium. Minal and her English teacher, Christine McLaughlin, sit in front of a cheering audience while Kate DiCamillo shares slides and talked about her journey as a writer.

Afterwards, DiCamillo walks between students, answering questions (“What’s your favorite book?” “Are you married?” and “Do you still write two pages every day?”). Once the public session ends, Minal and her teacher escort Kate to Minal’s class, where Kate DiCamillo signs books for Minal’s classmates, who receive t-shirts, a copy of Kate’s Raymie Nightingale, and pizza (funded by the Scholastic Reader).

“It was wonderful to see Minal stand up there and take in all the applause with poise,” DiCamillo tells me before leaving campus. “I know she’s going to be a writer!”

Postscript: A few days later, Kate DiCamillo adds a note on her FB page – click here to read.


03 Feb 2017 · 04:54:43 PM

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VBB's upcoming publication...

Borderlines Volume Two; image by Veer Munshi, cover design by Angela Martinez

Now more than ever it’s important to push past rising walls. In about a month, Voices Breaking Boundaries’ latest publication, Borderlines Volume Three, will be available. The publication, containing writings and art from Bangladesh, Canada, India, Mexico, Pakistan, the US-Mexico border and Houston, is a labor of love driven by a team including: co-editors, Margot Backus PhD, Maria Gonzalez PhD, who donate their brilliance for the sheer joy of creating memorable publications; Joshua Turner, who has been designing all Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) books even as he moves between jobs in New York and Houston; and Anna Saikin PhD, who juggles emails from the editors, contributors, readers and me and keeps track of all deadlines. As VBB’s Artistic Director, I’m involved in all levels of the publication.

Borderlines Volume Three is VBB’s final Borderlines publication and features art and writings by: Julia Villaseñor Bell, Britto Arts Trust, Jimmy Castillo, Oui Chatwara S. Duran, Claudia Cerrucha Espinosa, Sonya Fatah, Os Galindo, Victoria Paige Gonzalez, Paul Hester, Gelson Lemus, Sayantan Boka Maitra, Kabir Mokamel/Peace Street, Carolina Monsivais, Delilah Montoya, Veer Munshi, Minerva Reynosa, Bruno Rios, Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Sehba Sarwar, Mikaela Selley, Masooma Syed, Sukhada Tatke, Roberto Tejada, Charisse Weston, Sebastian Varghese, Stalina Villarreal, Gemini Wahhaj, Ilona Yusuf and Pablo Gimenez Zapiola.

The cover image is a photograph by Veer Munshi (whose interview by Sukhada Tatke is available in the book) and cover is designed by Angela Martinez, who has been working with VBB and me for almost a decade.

Stay tuned for the release date!

2 Feb 2017 · 07:30:11 PM

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two days later…

Woman waiting to catch Metro waves a banner designed by Stephen Fairey for The Amplifier Foundation’s We The People project

I wake up to hear the radio spitting stories about the wall that will be built no matter what, the continuation of the Dakota Access pipeline, rejection of refugees, removal of funding for international NGOs that cover fertility rights, reduction of taxes for corporations, eliminating healthcare for all. This is a short list.

Remembering Saturday’s excitement when Minal and I crammed into Los Angeles’s Metro with Elline Lipkin and her friend toward the Women’s March in Pershing Square, I search for hope, telling myself that these days will pass, that artists will be the ones to undo damage from this era. I am reminded of the destruction wreaked in 1977 after General Zia launched his military coup, kicking off laws that spiraled Pakistan into the middle ages. And I am inspired when I remember participating in Women’s Action Forum marches in the heart of Karachi.

When Minal grows older, she, too, will recall her first march with 750,000 children, women and men in downtown LA. She will save the photos she shared with friends who also marched with their mothers and fathers 1,500 miles away in Houston, twelve year-old girls pushed into political consciousness by a president whose actions will change the world they know.


Left: Woman holds up Stephen Fairey’s poster designed for the Amplifier Foundation’s We The People Project; Right: Image of Munira Ahmed in Fairey’s poster, also designed as part of Amplifier Foundation’s We the People project

24 Jan 2017 · 04:09:49 PM

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a saturday night virtual playdate…

“I’m at 10:21 seconds,” calls out Minal.

“I need to catch up—I’m at 10:24 seconds!” Minal’s friend’s voice ricochets from Minal’s video phone that’s propped up in front of our television screen.

“I’ll pause,” replies Minal.

Minal and her friend are participating in a “virtual playdate,” through which the girls—one in Pasadena, California and other in Houston, Texas—are watching the same Amazon Prime TV show. Speaking on video-phones with their I-pads projecting the show onto larger screens, the girls have timed their viewing so they can experience each episode at the same pace. Last night was a practice session, but tonight is a marathon.

During a break, I ask if they would call their virtual visit a “playdate” or a “hangout.”

Minal’s friend pauses and then responds: “A playdate!”

“Yeah,” agrees Minal. “I’d feel weird saying ‘hangout.’

“We’re not there yet,” her eleven-year-old friend explains.

14 Jan 2017 · 09:38:08 PM

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learning more every day…

This week, poet, performance artist and educator Christa Forster, who I met in Houston more than two decades ago and have remained friends with ever since, visited her hometown San Juan Capistrano, where her mother still resides. Undaunted by the sixty miles between Pasadena and Orange County, René, Minal and I head south, so we can spend some time with Christa and her family. After catch-up conversations, Christa gives us a tour of Mission San Juan Capistrano, a site that one of Christa’s California friends tells me I must visit with Christa.

The mission, which was founded in 1776 by Spaniards, was largely successful in its goals to convert members of the indigenous community, and remained active until 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain. Once the mission system was dissolved by the Mexican government, Mission San Juan Capistrano—like other missions around California—was abandoned, changing owners several times.


In 1844, the Mission property was purchased at a public auction by Christa’s ancestor, Englishman John (Don Juan) Forster, brother-in-law of California’s governor, Pio Pico. Using the Mission as a ranch, John (Don Juan) Forster and his family resided in the building for twenty years until 1864 when Abraham Lincoln reclaimed the property and returned the site to the Catholic Church. (Today, Mission San Juan Capistrano operates as a non-profit organization, offering tours and exhibitions and running a chapel.) Inside the Mission property, a room is dedicated to Christa’s family, showcasing photographs of John (Don Juan) Forster, his wife Ysidora Pico and California governor Pio Pico. After our Mission tour, Christa walks us to the O’Neill Museum where a plaque honors her father, Tomas “Tony” Forster.

Though Christa has conducted research and created a performance piece about her ancestor Ysidora Pico—which I experienced several years ago—I didn’t comprehend her background until I witnessed how deeply her family roots are intertwined with San Juan Capistrano’s history. Given my own family’s movement from India to Pakistan—and now to different parts of the world—I’m especially appreciative of how Christa’s family history is preserved in one region.


The Mission courtyard

29 Dec 2016 · 10:08:14 PM

Note added on 16 Jan, 2017 When I tell my cousin Samina Hasan, who used to live in Dana Point (a beachtown close to San Juan Capistrano), about our visit, she sends me an email: OMG! Zoha [my daughter] went to Marco Forster Middle School, probably named after a relative of your friend.

And sure enough, a few hours later, Christa confirms by email: Marco Forster MS is named for my grandfather (my dad’s dad).

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