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This North Texas author is shining a light on Desi authors from around the globe

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"The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories," by Dhumketu, translated by Jenny Bhatt.

"The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories," by Dhumketu, translated by Jenny Bhatt. (Deep Vellum Publishing/TNS)

Jenny Bhatt was born in Gujarat, India, grew up in Bombay, and has lived and worked around the globe. But for the past several years, she has made her home in the Dallas area and established an international reputation as a writer, translator, literary critic, podcaster and instructor.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer after I won a children’s short story contest in India at age 10,” Bhatt said in an email. “But I also was mindful of my parents’ aspirations and all the sacrifices they made for our education.”

So, she became an engineer and worked in the United Kingdom, Europe and different parts of the United States until her mid-40s. She began taking writing workshops in her late 20s, but couldn’t consider a full-time MFA program or writing as a career because of her status as an immigrant on a work permit, she said.

“I learned the craft on my own time and dime until I had some savings and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Then I quit a pretty good job in Silicon Valley, gave myself a firm timeline and moved back to India for a few years to work on my books.”

Her gamble paid off.

Her 2020 short-story collection, "Each of Us Killers," won wide critical praise and a Foreword INDIES award. She’s been published in the "Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021" anthology. And her translation, "Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu," was a finalist for an award from Valley of Words, which holds one of the most comprehensive literary award programs in India.

In July 2022, Dallas’ Deep Vellum Publishing brought out Bhatt’s translation of "The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories," the first substantial collection in English of stories by the legendary Gujarati writer Dhumketu (1892-1965), who wrote widely in nearly every literary form.

The following is an edited version of our email conversation.

Q: Deep Vellum published your recent translation of "The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories." Are independent publishers taking a lead in bringing translations of world literature to Western readers?

A: Yes, this is true, especially for translations from non-European languages and non-Western parts of the world. Studies have shown that only about 3% of the annually published books in the U.S. are translated works. And the Big Five publishers prefer books that are easily packageable, marketable and can reach a wide readership.

A translated work from a relatively unknown part of the world is a tougher sell. Independent presses like Deep Vellum know world literature and why certain works from other cultures are important literary, historical and sociocultural artifacts. So they — and a few others like them — are definitely leading the charge to bring diverse world literature to American readers.

Q: Do you think that Western readers often hesitate to read translations, especially from cultures more unfamiliar to them?

A: Yes, and this insular approach to reading puzzles me. We read to experience worlds, lives and stories beyond what we already know. If we read only books that confirm what we already know (even if they do so with beautiful language and storytelling), we’re missing out on all the pleasures that literature has to offer. When we have little time to read in our busy lives, why not read books that challenge and expand our existing notions of the world?

Q: Geetanjali Shree’s "Tomb of Sand" (translated by Daisy Rockwell from Hindi to English) won the 2022 Booker International Prize, and Shehan Karunatilaka’s "The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida," a novel set amid the civil war in Sri Lanka, won the 2022 Booker Prize. What was your reaction?

A: Thrilled for both long-overdue wins. Shree’s novel is the first South Asian translation ever to win the Booker International, despite the centuries of South Asian literature in so many languages and the many translations.

In original English, South Asian works have fared somewhat better. We’ve had V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga win the Booker. That said, their novels were very much for a Western readership.

Karunatilaka’s book is singular for how it tackles the Sri Lankan political landscape and because it was written for South Asian readers and published there first. Perhaps the publishing ecosystem is slowly opening up to South Asian works that go beyond the usual stereotypes, tropes and biases.

Q: The New York Times has a series called “Read Your Way Around the World.” How significant is it that American journalism is becoming more open to international literature?

I love that series. That said, I check it regularly and see barely a couple of South Asian works featured and they’re typically from languages at the top of the South Asian translation pyramid: Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, etc. For robust international literature coverage, we need to look to, again, independent venues like Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Asymptote Journal and, of course, Desi Books.

A: Yes, you founded desibooks.co, an online community forum focusing on South Asian literature. For readers who aren’t familiar with the word “Desi,” could you explain its relevance?

I started Desi Books in April 2020, when the pandemic began, to 1) help South Asian writers find their readers because traditional, mainstream media chases a few at the expense of many; and 2) celebrate the plenitude and diversity of South Asian literature through conversation and community. We feature South Asian writers, poets and translators from around the world via audio/text interviews, reviews, video community/panel discussions and reading lists.

“Desi” is from the ancient Sanskrit “desh,” meaning country. The first known use dates back to a circa 500 B.C. dance, music and literary arts treatise, Natya Shastra, by the sage, Bharata Muni. He used “deshi” for regional or provincial art traditions versus those more well known at the national level at the time. Today, the word is used in various subcontinental languages and dialects to refer to the people, cultures and products of or from the subcontinent. Desi Books is very much in that spirit.

Q: In which languages do you feel fluent enough to do formal translations? Are there other languages you feel familiar with, but don’t (yet) do translations?

A: Gujarati, my mother tongue, is the language I’m most fluent in for formal translation work. At school in India, we learned the national and state languages. For me, these were Hindi and Marathi. But Bombay is a cosmopolitan city, so I grew up also hearing Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Parsi, Urdu, Punjabi and more all around me. I also studied German at university and French during my engineering internship in the U.K., so I’ve formally translated from German and French for work, and also informally from Hindi and Marathi.

Q: You came to writing later in life. What have been some of the challenges so far?

A: The biggest challenge for those of us who come to writing later in life after other careers is that, without the expected literary pedigree or networks, it’s hard to make inroads. We may have been working at our craft for decades and even gotten some decent bylines, but so much of this industry runs on insider referrals and connections.

And, as a recent PEN America study showed, American publishing does not reflect the country’s diverse demographics. So it’s tougher for writers of color like me. As I always say to writers/translators who ask: Writing and publishing are two entirely different things and require different sets of skills and approaches.

Two years after my first two books (published at age 48 and during the pandemic) and after teaching more than 20 writing workshops at Writing Workshops Dallas and PEN America, I’m still figuring out this publishing ecosystem. All that said, as an older writer and translator, I’m also weathered enough to take most of it in stride.

Q: You run a popular weekly newsletter called “ We Are All Translators ,” about “the translating life.” Tell us about that.

A: With underrepresented languages and literatures like Gujarati, translators like myself do the work because it is an act of love and an act of recovery of our literary traditions. Often, we have no formal training or mentorship. I read a lot of translation craft and theory texts to educate myself. The newsletter is a way to share that learning and other resources. It’s grown way beyond my expectations, and I’m enriched by all the translators from around the world I’ve met virtually because of it.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

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