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Book Review - Catamaran

Chitra Parayath

A friend and fellow writer called me up the day I received my copy of the Catamaran last week. "Have you heard of this collection?" he asked. "Should I buy it? Should I contribute? Will my story be accepted?" Having had the opportunity to go through the book, I'm glad to report back a qualified "yes" to these questions.

Catamaran is a collection of new fiction, poetry and essays from an array of emerging South Asian voices. It offers multihued perspectives on familiar themes of cultural identity crises and diaspora experiences. We hear narratives of history, social issues and cultural confusion.

Anthologies play a useful role in representing a culture. The anthologist's selection tells the story of the population for whom the authors collectively speak. The question one needs to ask is, “Does this anthology provide a growing reading public with the rich and diverse literary expressions that make up the Indian American experience?”

Catamaran’s premise is interesting. In her preface, Rajini Srikant, Executive Editor, says, “The artists featured in Catamaran are not individuals you will encounter on the celebrity circuits today, but they all have the potential for such recognition. We’d like to think of Catamaran as encouraging and sustaining writers who have recently found their creative voice and vision and need a forum to hone their craft. She adds, “We look forward eagerly to submissions for forthcoming issues.”

The generous representation of fiction, drama, poetry and reviews makes the first issue of Catamaran an eclectic mix of both established and emerging literary voices. This first edition of what is expected to be a biyearly publication is dedicated to the memory of poet and teacher Agha Shahid Ali. Ali taught creative writing at UMass Amherst and was a friend and mentor to many emerging writers in the region.

While making no attempt to be comprehensive or all-inclusive, this anthology provides readers with a sampling of diverse literary expressions that makes up the Indian-American experience. Catamaran has stories of home and exile, the politics of the self and a nation in search of itself. They describe how individual identities are morphed and communities take shape on a daily basis.

I found some of the essays a little ponderous and a bit of a hard slog. If Catamaran intends to cater to widespread readership it may want to select less didactic and more user-friendlier pieces from these wonderful writers. The talent represented is clearly of high caliber -- if they could only tone it down a notch. Maybe it's just me. But there's something to be said for simple writing that is elegantly appealing, without taxing my rapidly depleting gray cells more than they need to be.

The articles on ghazals are fascinating. But this reviewer considers herself something of an aficionado, and wonders if those of us who are not, will find the minute explanations of the literary form of ghazals a tad cumbersome and convoluted. The authenticity of the writing shines through, but the lack of attention-grabbing elements can make for a less than entertaining read.

From an editing perspective, one wishes for a more coherent flow of material as the anthology moves through various genres of literature. One has a vague sense of disjointedness as one navigates through this eclectic collection.

That said I would encourage fans of fine writing to sample this book. Such an endeavor deserves all the support it can get from literature lovers of all stripes. I look forward to the next edition of this anthology.

Contributors to Catamaran include Neela Vaswani, Padmini Mongia, Saleem Peeradina, Hena Ahmed and Sejal Shah.

Agha Shahid Ali was born in New Delhi on February 4, 1949. He grew up in Kashmir, and was later educated at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar, and University of Delhi. He earned a Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984, and an MFA from the University of Arizona in 1985. His many volumes of poetry include Rooms Are Never Finished (2001), The Country Without a Post Office (1997), and The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992). He was the author of other critical books. A posthumous collection, entitled Call Me Ishmael Tonight, will be published in 2004. Ali received many fellowships and was awarded a Pushcart Prize. He held teaching positions at nine universities and colleges in India and the US, and was director of the MFA program in creative writing at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Agha Shahid Ali died on December 8, 2001.

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