With an upcoming offering of South Asian stories and art titled Road Trips, Barrelhouse is joining a very small group of American literary magazines dedicating entire issues to what is affectionately known as desi lit. The first to receive mainstream publicity of sorts was the Chicago Quarterly Journal’s South Asian American issue (Winter’17), a hefty 420 page edition which included essays and poetry in addition to fiction and art. At the same time, it fenced in the contributions to only diasporic writers, thereby defining desi lit in one specific way.
Kamil Ahsan, assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine, has a different goal with this upcoming South Asian issue: to explore what desi means to both native and diasporic writers. The issue goes further than just depositing stories and art on the page to allow for reader consumption. That would be the easy, more traveled way. Instead, the issue encourages our curiosities by pairing writers and artists to interpret each other’s works, and to ask each other questions through mini-interviews on tantalizing decades-old topics such as “what does desi really mean?” and “what is the future of desi fiction?”
These are questions that may not have immediate, easy answers, but the conversations around them are worth having for creatives, and worth witnessing for readers.
Ahsan explains that this is no ordinary back-and-forth. In his notes to reviewers, he discusses the extensive collaborative process between those who have written the stories and those who have illustrated them, highlighting “the effort that has gone into making the art and fiction speak to one another.” Upon reflection of the issue and its contents, one can rest assured that the effort has not gone wasted. The illustrations are fresh, unique and extremely specific to what the stories are speaking of. They are also not traditionally desi, as one would expect, but rather a colorful mish-mash of techniques, time periods and influences. Yes, there is truck art (how could there not be?) but there is also much more that celebrates the wide reach of diasporic and native South Asia.
A significant part of the fiction in the issue is gloriously speculative, with contemporary mixed in for good measure. Readers can choose from historical fiction, western comic, graphic short story, or erotica. Whether you like to read stories revolving around human trafficking, or the Pakistan military, or mid-century Hollywood, or theme park shenanigans, you won’t be disappointed. Vehicles, driving them, and driving trucks in particular are a major theme, starting from the startlingly vivid issue cover with a car on it. Not just any car, but a convertible, that scandalous aspect of modern life that your Ammi and Abba would turn their noses up at for being too frivolous, too expensive, too impractical, too everything.
The stories are equally “too everything” in the best possible way. There’s a story about a girl in an open truck with a dead alligator, and another story about a man driving a lorry out of control quite deliberately, and a third story about a woman being dragged home in a car by her mother, who of course will always be in charge because she’s a desi Amma and not an American mom.
Not that it needs to be spelled out, but the cover, the theme, and everything that goes into the issue itself is a nod to the desi road trip. It’s a celebration of the desi practice of road tripping, not as a way of entertainment, but as a way of saving money at the expense of time and sanity. Who doesn’t remember family road trips full of terse silences or squabbling siblings, snoring grandparents or Bollywood music? Who has never eaten biryani or samosas from the trunk of the car or stopped at the side of the road to take in a four-car pileup at the opposite side of the highway? Not anyone who’s desi, anyway, knows Barrelhouse.
The writers are a versatile lot, which is to say they are no strangers to the literary world. There is work by the fantastic Tara Isabel Zambrano, winner of The Southampton Review Short Story Fiction Contest 2019, and whose work is included in Best Micro Fiction and Best Small Fictions of that year, as well as in Atticus Review‘s latest Print Annual. There’s work by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants from Dzanc Books. There’s a story by Ahsan Butt, whose work has appeared in a variety of magazines including The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, and The Offing. There’s also an excerpt of Devi Laskar’s heart wrenching debut novel Atlas of Reds and Blues, which is worth reading in its entirety, but the excerpt suffices as a stop gap measure. The issue is full of writers and artists who will make readers think and laugh and cry, and perhaps even call their Ammi on the phone to tell them about a story they read or an art piece that spoke to them.
Everything in this issue is well-done, which is high praise by a desi, of course. Yet if one were to choose, Palvashay Sethi’s strangely yet fittingly arranged short story Barri Ammi – accompanied by sacrilegiously delicious art by Seyhr Quayum, really stands out. Short vignettes of the violent underbelly of Karachi. Old pictures of a sedate grandmother as a wild child. Remembrances of a train full of corpses when the subcontinent was slashed apart. The Divide, which hides in every desi’s breast and poisons them. Sethi gives words to what desi means for so many South Asians: “I am everywhere and nowhere, an image, a mirror, a double, a triple, infinite, zero, non-thing, thing, object, subject… I am realms, I am texts, I am circulation, I am motion…”
Barrelhouse “Road Trips” cover art by Mariam Jajja.
The upcoming online issue of Barrelhouse, titled “Road Trips,” featuring South Asian stories and art will be going live in June.