Women, and Men, and stories..
A memoir and its journey - In conversation
with author Lopa Banerjee
'ruthless categorization is a tide all genuine writers have
to swim against at least once'
Lopamudra Banerjee: Author of ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’
You have been a long-time crusader in writing, so what gave you the courage to write a memoir? Given that its highly 'not recommended' in our field especially if you want to do non-indie publishing, given how hard sell it is thought to be if it's not of someone famous?
When I was writing the manuscript of my book ‘Thwarted Escape’, I wanted it to be a memoir in terms of its broader genre, but written in the way a literary fiction is written, with a prose style that incorporates characters, settings, dialogues and an overarching theme/story, with a sprinkling of poetry interspersed in the narratives.
Now let us have a sneak peek at the publishing marketplace. Isn’t the very recent global bestselling book ‘A Long Way Home’ by Saroo Brierly, adapted as the blockbuster movie ‘Lion’ a memoir, for that matter? Let me give you some other classic examples of memoirs made into memorable films: The Motorcycle Diaries (based on The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Che Guevara), Nick Flynn’s great memoir ‘Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’, ‘This Boy’s Life’ by Tobias Wolff, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ (based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir), the list goes on.
Very recently, in April, I had the honor and opportunity to attend a book awards ceremony, ‘When The East Meets West’, as part of the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017 (I received Honorary Mention for ‘Thwarted Escape’ in the category: memoir/autobiography), and at the event, writers including me were enthused to know the phenomenal journey of some memoirs of the recent times winning awards, accolades and being made into films.
Let me also mention that contrary to cliched assumptions, memoirs, personal narratives have always found their niche, discerning audience. What would you say about the timeless appeal of books like ‘The Narrative of Frederick Douglas’, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou, ‘Notes of a Native Son’ by James Baldwin, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion, ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, or the contemporary memoirs, ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, or ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert? What would you say about the personal essays of Virginia Woolf, including ‘A Room of One’s Own’? Haven’t some of these books earned their rightful places as classics in the estate of literature? Critically acclaimed international authors of the Indian Diaspora like Bharati Mukherjee, Pico Iyer, Bhanu Kapil Ryder have written and published personal narratives/essays, and like them, I would love to call myself an Indian diaspora writer too, albeit a much lesser known one.
As a writer passionately in love with the world of written words, I have never really believed in water-tight genres and sub-genres fed by the publishing industry. Rather, I have trusted my inner voice, and the power of honest, impactful storytelling. A memoir can very much be read as a 1st person narrative fiction, and a novel exploring the metaphorical truth of a character/characters can have autobiographical elements in it. What matters at the end is the journey that transpires in its pages.
What was the experience like? How many years did it take? How did you keep going? Walk us through the challenges, more than the triumphs so that aspiring authors as stubborn as you can find some guidance.
Writing the book was an amazingly incredible experience for me, undoubtedly. As I have already stated in my other interviews in a few magazines/journals that the seed of Thwarted Escape was sown in the form of a letter I wrote to my unborn daughter eight years back, and in due course of time, it took the shape of a full-length personal essay/memoir and branched out into myriad other life-changing memoirs, all of which coalesced and converged as interconnected chapters of my inward journey as a woman, a daughter and a mother, a Bengali immigrant in the US. I myself have grown and evolved along with it in many ways. After my two daughters were born, and I went back and forth between traveling to India and the US, the idea of writing a diaspora and migration story reared its head stronger every day, and I trusted my instincts and plunged into it head-on.
The individual chapters of ‘Thwarted Escape’, including its title chapter were born as individual personal essays and autobiographical vignettes, spurred on by my mentors of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Dr. Lisa Knopp and Dr. John T. Price. However, after a few of these individual essays were published in journals/e-mags like Café Disensus, eFiction India, Huffington Post USA, River Poets’ Journal, Episteme, Indian Review, it gave me the impetus to think about compiling them in a book form and publishing it in print for a greater global audience. The main push to publish it in a book form came when the manuscript was chosen as a finalist and a First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2014 (Narrative Nonfiction) hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC, USA.
However, in spite of this award and recognition which would encourage me from time to time to get it published, the real battle for me begun when I was actively seeking for publishers both in India and in the US who would have enough faith in the manuscript to publish it in print.
It took me almost three years, and the kind assurance of a couple of trusted Facebook friends including Dr. Santosh Bakaya, Dr. AV Koshy, Rhiti Chatterjee Bose to convince myself and be determined to publish the book in print. After vainly looking for agents who would believe in a different kind of nonfiction work, after constant editing and other life-changing epiphanies in my ongoing journey, including the death of both my parents, I got acquainted with my publisher Authorspress who ultimately believed in the vision behind the book and published it.
If you ask me the reason behind these challenges, I would say that ruthless categorization is a tide and all genuine writers have to swim against at least once and prove their mettle by engaging their readers with the content of their books.
The mainstream traditional publishing world, I found, was rather reluctant to publish an experimental work, which is partly a memoir, and partly an autobiographical novel. They wanted one-liners, defining the manuscript, and it was difficult to come up with such watertight definitions. It was a ruminative, emotional journey that is at the core of the book and they found it rather old-fashioned and plain. So you can say that in a publishing world where clichés and categorization rule, finding niche readers for a book with a difference might take time, but it is not difficult to attain. As for ‘Thwarted Escape’, it has already started to attain the recognition and rewards by readers interested in reading and recommending quality literature, and my goal of reaching the book to a discerning audience is almost accomplished.
You have shared a few times your dedication to writing, and how you chose to sacrifice for the same in many aspects of your life. You had also shared from time to time, how the literature world is so not what it is made to be - glitz, glamour, riches and how you survived. Care to share some of that for us?
For me, writing came naturally as an extension of my own being. It was neither a compulsion, nor a hobby for me. Ever since I have discovered my true calling in writing, it has been a source of immense pleasure to me when my muse has visited me in various forms, be it article writing for magazines or newspapers, or writing poetry, or translation, or creating the chapters of a work-in-progress book. Yes, I admit there are downtimes as well, when writing doesn’t pay you the money that you might deserve otherwise, or when nobody surrounding you cares to know what you are working on or what you have published recently. But all said and done, the validation needs to come from somewhere deep inside, and also needs to be overpowering enough for you to make all other ifs and buts dissolve into oblivion. This deep, overpowering inner calling is actually worth the sacrifices you make, if any. For me, personally, writing is not about glitzy author conferences in plush hotels, or giant literary meets in collaboration with big names and celebrities. Most of the times, it is what it is in its raw, vulnerable form, an empty, soundless room, blank walls staring at me and gulping me while I pick up the pen, or type away, filling the blank screen with the blood and sweat of my words.
I attended some prominent literature conferences in the US and learnt that even with big publishers, the burden of publicity lies on the author for first time authors. You went with a smaller house. How did you drive the publicity part of it? What initiatives you took? Will you please share some thoughts on both the challenges, and on what you learnt works?
As far as I have seen, the publicity of my book has been mostly through word of mouth and the online social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Authorspress, my publisher, for that matter, has been in the literary publishing arena for quite some time now, with a considerable number of poetry, fiction and nonfiction books under its belt and the literary community in India recognizes them well. That being said, I had to take most of the onus of marketing the book after its launch in Amazon and Flipkart. One of the challenges I faced was that my book, like many new authors’ books, is only available at online retailers and not at physical bookstores. But since I went to India while the book was launched and did a couple of author events there, including book readings, the word of mouth publicity became very effective. Recently, I have started attending a couple of author events locally in the US, to spread a word about my book. Besides, several renowned literary journals and magazines have featured the book, including Setu, the International bilingual e-mag, Café Dissensus (New York-based journal), Different Truths, Reviews, Women’s Web, Bonobology and South Asian Times, published from Melbourne, Australia. Several readers have reviewed the book very positively in Amazon, Goodreads and Facebook, and have personally messaged me to say how they have been inspired by my autobiographical narratives. What more can I ask for? I am truly thankful for the response it has garnered back at home and in the US, after its release.
What would you say to literature lovers who are thirsty for diverse and good works but are unable to get their hands on some? What is the single most important thing they can do to support authors like you?
First and foremost, publishers must join hands with good, substantial writers of literary fiction and nonfiction to produce books which would have timeless literary appeal, resonate with the readers’ emotions, and have a lasting impact on the psyche of the readers. While I understand that genres and sub-genres have been created to cater to the diverse reading tastes of a mass audience, it has also been crucial to give home to experimental, Avant Garde literary works so that the power of classic storytelling enriches the true lovers of literature. If you ask me, I can never substitute reading the works by Emily Bronte or Nathaniel Hawthorne or James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or even Maya Angelou with any of the popular fiction being produced today. While it is a reality that popular fiction is steadily and surely usurping young minds, the allure of classic literature will be there as a timeless reality. Fierce and feisty narratives by emerging writers must find their way in the publishing marketplace and then only the readers can reach those uncharted horizons. As for fledgling authors like me, we would continue to hone our craft and chisel our inner voices the best way we can, and in time, we would surely reach the readers we deserve. Even if it is a handful, that handful is what truly matters.
Lopamudra Banerjee is a writer, poet, editor and translator, currently based in Dallas, USA. She has a Masters’ degree with thesis in creative nonfiction writing from the Department of English, University of Nebraska at Omaha. She is the co-editor of the bestselling anthology on women, Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas, published in collaboration with Readomania and Incredible Women of India.
Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant's Wayward Journey, her debut memoir/narrative nonfiction, published by Authorspress, has recently received Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles Book Festival 2017. The manuscript has also been a First Place Category Winner at the Journey Awards 2014 hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC. Her poetry, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in numerous journals, e-zines and anthologies (print and online), both in India and the US. She has received the Reuel International Award 2016 (category: Translation) for her English translation of Rabindranath Tagore's novella Nastanirh (translated as The Broken Home) instituted by The Significant League, a renowned literature group in Facebook, and the book is available in Amazon Kindle. She has very recently co-edited a collection of ghost stories to be released soon in Amazon and also working on her English translation of two novellas and six short stories of Rabindranath Tagore's 'Galpaguchchho', to be published in print soon.
Satire, life, and writing - In conversation with Dr. Santosh Bakaya
- scholar, poet, academician and fellow contributing author in Mock,
Stalk and Quarrel
In spite of being an established and respected author, and Reuel prize winner, what drives you to still submit to contests run for anthologies? Is it something about the MSQ specifically that attracted you or is this a part of your author philosophy still?
Who says I am an established writer? When does a writer become an established writer? Well, I think, I am still a struggler, a learner, enriching myself by every experience that comes my way. Writing has been my passion , and it has driven me all along , and I know , that I will be scribbling away till my last breath , whether my readers like it or not .It is almost an insane obsession, and I HAVE to write, if I feel very strongly about something. I don’t think, a writer writes for winning prizes, one word of appreciation can give a writer a high. That is enough of an award. In fact, when I started writing Oh Hark! – A spooky – surrealistic narrative poem, which went on into 100 pages, I did not even know about the existence of the award, or the cash prize it carried. It was just written on a lark.
The very idea of satire has always appealed to me, in fact, right now, I am in the act of editing my satirical novel, written in the backdrop of higher education. It is full of some humorous – satirical incidents which I have myself experienced as the principal of a government college.
I was part of Defiant Dreams, and hence wanted to be a part of MSQ too, and then, as I said earlier, satire has always been my cup of tea, the very concept of satirical tales appealed to me.
Since launch of MSQ, there has been quite some excitement on the potential of this turning into a literary call to action to further satire as a sword against social and political malice. What do you think? Will Indian readers be merely entertained and enjoy MSQ as a good read (which it definitely is) or will it succeed in its ambitious goal of inspiring societal pondering?
All satire induces mankind to think, it can be wackily funny and morally edifying too. Needless to say, M SQ is an excellent compilation of satirical tales – undoubtedly a good read, but good Literature definitely inspires societal pondering .We have examples of satire in English literature like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels and the satirical essay, A Modest Proposal , which mocked society’s callous attitude toward the poor, and Alexander Pope’s brilliant satire Rape of the lock,  to cite a few examples.
Satire can ridicule politicians into rethinking their policies and changing them .In the 18th century, British society, the rampant superficial follies, hypocrisy and decorum of the higher classes was exposed and ridiculed in Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.
Raag Darbari ,  was a very powerful satire in Hindi , subtle , acerbic and witty , written by Sahitya academy awardee Sri Ram Shukla about the nexus between politicians , police , criminals , and businessmen .It managed to prick the conscience of the post- independence India .Some of its succinct one-liners went on to become oft quoted aphorisms .
Your story for MSQ - The Whistle blower - what inspired it? Memory has played a vivid role in your other works - is this also conceptualized similarly?
Yes, memory has played a vivid role in all my writings. In fact, my next collection of Poems, Under the apple boughs, is nostalgia and memory driven, so is my book, Flights from my terrace - A collection of 58 essays.
The Whistle blower was inspired by a real life incident which I witnessed in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, where I was posted. There was this group of students that was running, as if trying to save itself from some invisible dragon. I asked one of the post-graduate students, “Why is everyone running?” He gave me a bewildered look, and continued running. “I am running, because everyone else is running”. He hurled back, still running.
So, you see, we have this insane propensity to follow the crowd blindly- not for us to reason why.
In your story - the moment the question comes - why are we running? and its protagonist Rahul - reminded me somehow of 'The Emperor has no clothes' - where the child shouts this out (I am reading this to my toddler these days as its in her collection of fairy tales).
It is the children, shorn of all guile and hypocrisy who shine the torch on our idiosyncrasies, follies and fads because they don’t have the fork- tongued hypocrisy of the so called –well-read and well –heeled.
Yes, indeed, why are we running – all the time, dashing, crashing, clashing, stumbling in helter – skelter confusion, stepping over peoples’ toes, bruising and battering egos, in our bid to be one up on the others? My Whistleblower cocks a snook at this idiosyncratic streak in us.
Coming to whistle blowing on follies of criminal and such activities - I have often wondered that one possibly has to be as carefree and stupidly brave as a child to be able to dare. Especially since most countries doesn't have adequate protection for whistle blowers. India doesn't have any protection for whistle blowers or even an witness protection program. Yet Tehelka, and such journalism existed here - we owe a lot to them. Even common men have dared at the cost of their lives. If it’s not sheer tomfoolery - what do you think drives such individuals?
No it is not tomfoolery .Such individuals are driven by a strong sense of ethics, an upright, and hyperactive inner voice, which will not curb its loquacity unless the whistle is blown on the witnessed ill –practices.
Such individuals cannot look the other way, when they find themselves in the middle of corrupt practices.
Even the US Govt intends to criminally prosecute Edward Snowden in spite of The Whistle blower Protection act of 1989 for potentially impacting National security. Is personally feel conflicted on when a border should be drawn and if a border should be drawn - consequences, sensitivity, sentiments - vs. ethics and freedom of information. What do you think?
According to The Whistle blower protection act of 1989, updated through the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement act 2012, the U S Government cannot fire, suspend, threaten, harass or discriminate against a whistle blower. But Edward Snowden, the man behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA history in 2013, has been called a traitor, a patriot, a whistleblower, dissident, a villain, and a hero, all in one breath for breaching national security and charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, and communication of classified information to an unauthorized person. He was said to have violated the Espionage Act 1917 and theft of government property.
The young, , Edward Snowden America’s most consequential whistleblower of the present times, never planned to hide in the shadows, because he believed he had done nothing wrong, and , according to him , he did what was legitimately in the public interest. But for the government, what he did was an assault on national security, hence the need for his prosecution.
I didn't get the answer from Dr. Bakaya which side she sides with on above, but I am OK with what I got - like satire, some answers in life are better when subtle.
A conversation with Banoo J Parpia
Dr Banoo Parpia is Director for International Development at Cornell University. She received her PhD degree from Cornell and spent a good part of her early career on the research faculty in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell.
She and her husband Professor Jeevak Parpia are avid collectors of Indian textiles and have a strong interest and knowledge of Indian art. Their collection has been exhibited numerous times at Cornell and also at other US universities and as such focused attention on the aesthetics and importance of these objects.
She grew up in Mumbai and is the granddaughter of Khan Bahadur Ardeshir Irani who was a pioneer of Indian cinema having produced the first Indian film talkie.
An incredible woman and her thoughts:
Conversation with Rhiti Bose of IWI
I wanted to start with Incredible Women of India, although I know you have spoken about the
same before and I want to ask something a bit different. After you had the idea – how struggling
or difficult were the starting days? How did you launch, create awareness on the same, what
platforms you used? And what if any were the frustrations in the early days?
First of all thank you, for thinking of me, for this interview. It is an honor.
Now going back to your question, it was not hard at all simply because I was not expecting anything out of it. So whatever good happened was like a bonus for me. I created a blog on WordPress, made a Facebook page and that was it. I kept on posting stories of INCREDIBLE WOMEN one after another and it caught the eyes of the people online somehow. I was not focusing on making IWI big.
Initially the only thing that was difficult was to get women to open up and talk about themselves. I had to beg, force and threat some really INCREDIBLE women into giving me interviews.
You can read some of the inspirational stories of the Incredible Women here: www.incrediblewomenofindia.wordpress.com
You spoke about your role in UK working with displaced children very poignantly in your previous interview – it is probably very pertinent for everyone to understand what you learnt given the current European refugee crisis and the plight of the Syrian children– why should the world care? What would be your answer to those who talk about caring for own citizens first, opening floodgates which will endanger their strained resources and prevent well being of their own citizens in future?
Above all, above everything else we are humans. This bare fact most of us forget. Divided by religion, gender, caste, country we really absolutely forget our humane duties.
The world should care because it could be you one day, it could be your children someday.
We humans are selfish and territorial by nature; it is evident through our history. Maybe it is time to change. Not just globally, the change of mindset must come from the grass-root levels. Or else it will never reach a global form.
On another hand, let me just say, it is so easy to judge others. At a very individual level it is unknown that if ever I or you face a certain situation where we have to give refuge, how would we react? Are we brave and kind enough to let strangers into our homes?
But yes, to provide love, support and refuge to everyone who needs it without thinking about the consequences is always the right thing to do.
I feel very frustrated every day that even after all the outcry after the Nirbhaya incident and the report published with recommendations – I don’t see anything changing policy level. I don’t hear of fast track courts really working, stricter punishment for perpetrators, laws created on acid attack prevention or prosecution. Instead – I hear of meat ban, auto permits for Marathi speaking only, debate on whether or not Nehru museum should include Modi legacy. How do you – as an Indian women and a women in India – deal with this? What are your hopes, disappointments and wishes?
Things are changing, slowly, but they are changing for the better.
Women are at a much better state than they were say fifty years ago. There are opportunities which exist now which never did before. As far as safety of women is concerned, we still have a long way to go.
I believe severe punishments in cases which show cruelty over women and children should be implemented. Only the fear of law and punishment can harness the situation better.
Can you give me some positive developments you are aware of in India as an activist which makes you hopeful for women?
There are multiple instances of change happening throughout India. Both at the central government level and at the NGO level as well.
I am not a big fan of government implemented schemes for the betterment of women just for the simple fact that they are inconsistent, but there are Mother and child tracking system (MCTS), Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (for loans), Mahila Samkhya Program (education) and am sure there are many more, but truly don’t have much idea how they are helping rural and urban women.
So I’ll give you examples of some NGO’s which I think is doing a fabulous job in empowering women. Prajwala by Dr. Sunitha Krishnan (against sex trafficking) is one such organization. Then there is Chhanv (for acid attack victims), Gunj, Plan India, Greenpeace India, to be honest the list is endless of incredible people and NGO’s taking stand for the betterment of women and society.
You write, and you care. What puts this two together in your mind? Which one you prioritize? How do you divide time?
I never do anything consciously, believe me. In my mind it is a mess, how I manage to do anything at all is a miracle to me itself.
I work through my instincts and emotions, whatever I am thinking at that moment takes priority, I hardly ever consciously prioritize. I write when I want to and the care part is there throughout the day with me, it never leaves me.
Your educational background is Nutritional Sciences - how did the transition from there to a position like International Alumni Affairs and Development happen?
IT HAPPENED SERENDIPITOUSLY ! MY PRIOR RESEARCH FACULTY POSITION, SENIOR RESEARCH ASSOCIATE, IN THE DIVISION OF NUTRITIONAL SCIENCES WAS NOT A TENURE-TRACK PERMANENT LINE AND REQUIRED AVAILABILITY RESEARCH FUNDS TO SUPPORT THE POSITION. THIS REQUIRED CONSTANT FUND RAISING ON MY PART VIA RESEARCH GRANTS AND I WOULD PERIODICALLY DISCUSS MY DISSSATISFACTON WITH THIS ENTIRE PROCESS, WITH THE DEAN OF MY COLLEGE. SHE WOULD SUGGEST VARIOUS OPTIONS AND WHEN THIS POSITION WAS AVAILABLE IN CENTRAL ADMINISTRATON SHE SUGGESTED I APPLY. I WAS VERY RELUCTANT AT FIRST, PARTICULARLY AS I WOULD MISS MY INTERACTIONS WITH STUDENTS AND FACULTY COLLEAGUES, BUT I FINALLY APPLIED FOR THE POSITION. I HAD INTERFACED WITH SEVERAL ALUMNI DONORS ON BEHALF OF THE COLLEGE WITH THE DEAN, AND HAD HELPED HER SECURE AN ENDOWED FACULTY POSITION FOR OUR COLLEGE FROM THE WIFE OF THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES, SO MY DEAN HAD OBSERVED MY INTERACTIONS WITH POTENTIAL ALUMNI DONORS AND SUPPORTED AND RECOMMENDED ME FOR THIS JOB.
What does your job involve doing day to day?
THIS POSITION REQUIRES A GREAT DEAL OF TRAVEL TO ASIA AND REQUIRES A ‘COMFORT LEVEL’ IN THE VARIED CULTURES IN ASIA AND NAVIGATING LOGISTICS IN EACH AREA THAT IS OF IMPORTANCE TO THE UNIVERSITY, FROM KOREA TO CHINA AND FROM JAKARTA TO MUMBAI. IT ALSO REQUIRES AN INDEPTH KNOWLEDGE OF THE UNIVERSITY AND THE VARIOUS COLLEGES AND PROGRAMS.
A GOOD DEAL OF THE WORK IS DONE BY EMAIL AS A LARGE PART OF THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THIS POSITION IS TO FUNCTION AS A “RELATIONSHIP MANAGER” FOR OUR HIGH-LEVEL ALUMNI DONORS IN ASIA WITH THE UNIVERSITY. RELIANCE ON EMAIL IS ESSENTIAL TO CONSTANTLY REACH OUT AND FACILTATE CONNECTIONS AS WELL AS IN-PERSON MEETINGS WITH OUR ALUMNI DONORS AND FRIENDS IN THEIR HOME COUNTRIES. CONNECTIONS ACROSS THE UNIVERSITY IS ALSO IMPORTANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT FACULTY, STUDENTS AND VARIOUS PROGRAMS.
For such a prestigious and important position for an university like Cornell, you must be meeting some amazing and influential personalities. Who are a few you'd like mention and what has stricken you about them?
YES. THIS POSITION MUST BUILD STRONG RELATIONSHIPS WITH IMPORTANT AND INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN VARIOUS ARENAS INCLUDING THE FINANCIAL WORLD, EDUCATION, GOVERNMENT, LAW, BUSINESS AND SO ON. THERE ARE INDIVIDUALS WHO RUN LARGE HEDGE FUNDS IN HONG KONG AND OTHERS WHO ARE IN HIGHLY VISIBLE AND WELL-KNOWN FAMILY BUSINESS IN KOREA OR SENIOR PARTNERS IN INTERNATIONAL LAW FIRMS IN JAPAN. WHAT STRIKES ONE MOST ABOUT ALL THESE PEOPLE IS THEIR AMAZING LOYALTY TO CORNELL AND THEIR DEEP ROOTED FEELINFGS FOR THE UNIVERSITY AND THE IMPACT THEIR TIME AT CORNELL HAS ON THEIR LIVES.
What do you love most about you job? Does it let you do the things you wanted to do professionally?
THE BEST PART OF THE JOB FOR ME IS MEETING WITH THESE VARIED AND DIVERSE INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE ALL CONTRIBUTING IN THEIR OWN WAY IN THEIR VARIOUS PROFESSIONS AND MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE FOR US ALL.
What are your thoughts about the role South Asian first generation immigrants and diaspora can play in socio economic reforms in this country and back home? What would be your advice to aspirants wanting to make an impact?
THE SOUTH ASIAN COMMUNITY – FIRST GENERATION DIASPORA – IS IMPRESSIVE AND HAS MADE AMAZING STRIDES AND A LASTING MARK IN THE U.S. THEY HAVE MADE SIGNIFICANT IMPACTS IN INDIA THROUGH QUIET (NOT AS WELL PUBLICIZED) PHILANTHROPY TO ADDRESS PROBLEMS FACING THEIR HOME COUNTRY INCLUDING REDUCING POVERTY, EDUCATION, HEALTH AND SOCIAL ISSUES VIA SUPPORT TO NGOs AND MORE.
TO MAKE AN IMPACT, MY ADVICE TO YOUNG SOUTH ASIANS WOULD BE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED, IDENTIFY AND FOLLOW YOUR PASSION FOR A CAUSE AND YOU WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I MAY BE BIASED, BUT OUR SOUTH ASIAN CULTURE, FAMILY LIFE/STRUCTURE AND TRADITIONS MAKE FOR A STRONG IDENTITY AND RESOLVE SO WHATEVER WE PUT OUR MINDS TO CAN BE ACHIEVED AND IT IS INEVITABLE THAT A SOUTH ASIAN PERSON FOLLOWING THEIR TRUE PASSION WILL MAKE AN IMPACT.
Linking academia and business for global good
Mark Henderson is Associate Dean of the Barrett Honors College and Professor of Engineering at ASU’s Polytechnic campus in the College of Technology and Innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. His areas of interest include human-centered design (especially for the developing world), global teaming, geometric modeling and design thinking.
He is a co-founder of InnovationSpace, a transdisciplinary curriculum that teaches students how to develop products that create market value while serving real societal needs and minimizing impacts on the environment.
Henderson is also a co-founder of GlobalResolve, a social entrepreneurship program designed to provide student opportunities by involving them in world-wide technological entrepreneurship projects that directly improve the lives of underprivileged people, especially those in developing countries. The program works with global partners to develop sustainable technologies and community ventures in the areas of energy, clean water and health. GlobalResolve currently works in Ghana, India, Mexico and Arizona. He has received the President’s Innovation Award in 2009 and the Alumni Association Creasman Award in 2008.
From your endeavors, it is obvious that you see a lot of value in multi-university and trans-disciplinary collaborations. At what point in your life and career did this realization come about?
I received a large NSF grant in the early ‘90s to explore global manufacturing engineering education that took me to Europe and that was the beginning of a realization that there’s a lot to be learned by “being there” wherever the action is. I used those connections to start a program called the Global Engineering Design Team with ASU and great partners at University of Leeds and National Technological University in Singapore where we created design teams for capstone projects comprised of students from multiple universities working together on a common problem with industry support from Boeing, Honeywell and Rolls-Royce Aerospace. A personal experience building houses in Tijuana focused my attention on the developing world, so it was logical to combine the global teaming with work where we thought we could make the most impact and GlobalResolve grew out of that. We have a dynamic faculty team in place now that is serious about the newly-formed Humanitarian Engineering program at ASU.
To me, even being from engineering, mechanical engineering and sustainability/global development seem quite distinct. When and how did these two paths cross for you, or was it a part of your interest and skill in promoting collaboration in distinct disciplines that facilitated this?
Just like students change majors, I have changed departments twice from mechanical/aerospace to industrial and now to general engineering with a humanitarian focus. Those changes have gotten me out of my “cubicle” to realize how important other disciplines are when faced with design challenges. I also attribute my interest in trans-disciplinarity to having parents who were English teachers and valued the humanities as well as my being a music major and physics major in college before switching to engineering.
Engineering and sustainability crossed for me when ASU created the Global Institute for Sustainability and, in order to encourage participation from many corners of the university, named an initial set of Senior Sustainability Scientists, of which I was fortunate to be a member. That group opens its arms and resources to others on campus and that has helped me understand how sustainability is an important component of any design, especially those in the developing world.
The concept and model of GlobalResolve has really inspired me - if I or someone else would like to apply the same model and start similar endeavors for Women's Initiatives (or any other cause for the matter), what would be the first steps you would advise that need to be taken? Is it feasible to do something like this if one is outside of an University/academia?
Global Resolve was started by four faculty members meeting for coffee one day and realizing as we talked, that we all had been thinking about this same issue of global development with a goal of helping create entrepreneurial ventures owned by the local community. That required participation from multiple corners of the university, first by ethnographers and sociologists to appraise local problems and resources and then by STEM-based disciplines to create solutions to local problems and then by business and sustainability to advise on business creation that would create sustainable economy impact.
It doesn’t matter if you are inside or outside the university, although university students can be a fantastic resource. What does matter is the partners you recruit. I recommend universities, non-profits, government agencies and, most importantly, the community members.
So, my advice would be to find enthusiastic and committed participants from multiple disciplines and start a pilot project somewhere where one or more team members has a connection. Don’t wait for the “perfect time” to start because that doesn’t exist. Just step off the cliff and GO THERE to listen and learn. My first exploratory trip was a visit to Ghana using my network of acquaintances and their networks to set up visits to communities and government offices and non-profits to ascertain needs, current activities and potential partners. As I stood in that first village in front of the chief and a crowd of expectant residents and asked how we could help, I realized immediately that I had just made a personal commitment that I had to fulfill. That experience is life-changing. By the way, GlobalResolve is always willing to consider being a partner in any activity in the developing world.
From where I stand, I see tremendous increase in interest in sustainable development, yet hear concerns on profitability especially for corporations impeding more widespread and immediate action. Do you see a similar struggle in student mindsets while choosing something like this over higher paying prospects?
It used to be that sustainability was seen as a nice thing to consider by corporations, but one that cost money and reduced the bottom line. Now, large companies understand that sustainability actually saves money and increases the bottom line. I am not an expert in corporate sustainability, but that’s what I hear. General Electric realized that and started incorporating those principles in their business model and publicized them through the Eco-imagination ads on TV. So, there are jobs at large corporations that emphasize sustainability.
From a student standpoint, we are challenged to tell students (and parents) the job opportunities and details in the global development and humanitarian engineering profession. Typically, students who choose this field are not as concerned with making lots of money but they are concerned with job stability and job choice. We typically tell them about existing non-profits, USAID and other government programs. We just had a graduate find a job with Ashoka in Washington, D.C. Ashoka is a successful organization that works in the developing world. Another graduate formed her own non-profit working in Peru. We do need to gather more data on opportunities for graduates.
I do see a lot of Universities and such partners for Global Resolve, but not that many corporations. On the other hand, I am aware of corporate programs willing to participate in such initiatives but lacking channels/connections to facilitate. What are your thoughts on why it is so? Is this a concern?
We have not pursued corporate partners recently, although we did make presentations in the past and there was not a lot of interest. I would assume CSR programs get a lot of requests to partner and fund development projects. You are correct that there is no channel that I know of to do those connections. I do see partnerships between the Clinton Foundation and Microsoft or Jain Irrigation and USAID and other large organizations, but I don’t see any channels to link up smaller efforts like Global Resolve with corporations. We are very interested in partnering, especially in the entrepreneurial realm. We did just sign a non-disclosure agreement with a large company to explore partnering to produce and market some of the innovations from Global Resolve, so that is a start.
What are some of the most meaningful projects recently you have been part of? What is it about them that struck you and what did you learn from those?
Our largest and most expensive project to date has been the development and implementation of gelled ethanol cooking. We designed, built and shipped a still to the community and followed up with a student trip to install it and train the residents. We also designed a matching stove and tested it at a local school with good success. The village chief is a good partner who has an engineering degree from MIT so he understands the technology. We took 5 MBA students from Thunderbird with us one summer and they developed the business plan. So, it all sounds promising, but the fuel is still not being produced or sold. While it does remove smoke from the cooking process, there are other issues: cost is slightly more than charcoal which precludes women from buying it; removing smoke brings back mosquitoes and malaria; selling fuel to women eliminates their daily group search for wood which upsets the culture of the community; and the chief in our pilot village has been diverted to conversations with a mining company that has found gold on the village property – potentially a much larger economic impact than producing gelled ethanol.
It is hard work to develop a local business around a problem solution and one reason is that we don’t spend enough time in the community for learning and capacity building. This realization has started us planning a new initiative with the Peace Corps, where volunteers will partner with us in their communities to solve a problem and help make it profitable. Peace Corps volunteers do stay in the community for over 2 years so they will make a very good liaison with our student teams. We are piloting a project in Togo currently and should roll out a wider partnership in the next few months.
Hard questions to answer: With Ruben Reyes
Ruben Reyes, Vice Chair Elect at American Immigration Lawyers Association Arizona Chapter
discusses pertinent, hard questions on immigration and policy reform
You are a lawyer, and you do a lot of work pro-Bono to help out people trying to immigrate into this country from Mexico/Latin America who don't have proper resources. Describe a bit what kind of things you have to help most with? What are the typical challenges faced by these people?
Most people fleeing violence in Mexico, Central and South American face huge obstacles when they arrive and are apprehended by immigration authorities. The trek many make is dangerous and often times they are victimized multiple times on their journey to the United States. Couple this with prolonged detention, high bonds, lack of ability to work legally and the need to provide for themselves and their families and you often find immigrants being exploited in every way imaginable. This is often heartbreaking.
I believe it is important to listen to their stories and do my best to advocate and litigate any relief they may have available to them.
I often find that my role requires that I educate the client on how to defend themselves against whatever immigration charges the government is bringing against them while also tempering expectations. One of the most difficult things I find about what I do is that most often a person who comes to me for legal advice has heard so much from so many people that when they hear an honest and dry analysis of their matter it is difficult to explain why they may or may not qualify for whatever they had been promised in the past by others.
What motivates you to do this?
As cheesy or corny as this may sound, I believe in justice. I believe that there are those who are blessed enough to be in a position to take care of themselves and have time or the profession to take care of others. I really do care about the work I do, the people I serve, the community I work for and the families I am able to keep together.
For many years I was the beneficiary of many random yet, at the time, very necessary acts and interventions of kindness. I benefited from many people who took deliberate steps to help me when I was unsure if I could at the time, help myself.
My grandmother was a huge source of empathy, kindness, understanding and total love. She helped others because she could. She never expected anything in return. It is this kind of giving that I strive to emulate.
It is obvious you care a lot about this issue. However, one question that I am often asked and am not sure I have a good answer to, is whether or not this is a just cause - meaning, should immigration be facilitated outside the legal way? Everyone understands that our neighbors seeking this help are desperate and good people, but so are people from many other parts (example the Mediterranean crisis) who are still guided to follow proper channels or face deportation. No country can take in everyone seeking refuge. Share your thoughts a bit on this to help us understand the argument against this.
Money, business and ideas easily traverse borders, it is the people who do not. As an American, I have many issues with our past foreign policy as it pertains to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Central and South America, Cuba…. The list really goes on and on.
For the United States and other developed nations, I believe the time is now to focus on global development and global initiatives that can help solve some of the world’s most crushing problems.People flee, violence, poverty, famine, discrimination, oppression. In Central and South American people are fleeing all of these conditions as are many of the migrants/refugees who are fleeing Africa, Syria, Iraq,….
It is difficult to believe, considering the trillions spent on war in this century alone, that we cannot better focus our resources on educating children, developing clean energy, feeding the hungry, providing clean drinking water to the billions who have no access to anything I just mentioned. Until global leaders recognize that the world truly is getting smaller and that we as human beings will risk death when the other option is near certain death for any given reason, then we are focusing on the symptoms and not the problem.
The red herring in the United States regarding immigration policy is that prior to 1900 immigration laws were lax, and generally focused on keeping unwanted foreigners (Chinese, Mexican, Irish…) from being able to immigrate. Our current immigration laws are a mess. It is long overdue that Congress take up this issue and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
It is long overdue that we take peace, love and understanding for our fellow human beings more seriously if we wish to see a saner future for all of our children.
What about the crisis with minors last year - the fear that any relief or accommodation will just encourage rush of such situations and coyotes to kick off widespread human smuggling and exploitation seems to have some validity. What are your thoughts?
Desperation is the driving factor for the waves of youth fleeing their countries in search of a safe haven. The United States is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture. The United States has agreed to uphold the just principles of asylum and withholding of removal of individuals who would face torture or death if returned to their country of origin.
Children are not allowed to contract for goods or services in the United States because of a strong public policy exists defining children as mentally incapable of understanding exactly what it is they may be getting themselves into, so contracts involving children, signed by a minor are generally void. Yet, this same country will allow a minor to represent him or herself without legal counsel in what could be their last and most important hearing in their short lives. To say that currently there isn’t widespread human smuggling and exploitation is not reading much about the global and horrific widespread human smuggling and exploitation of minors.
Worrying about advancing human smuggling as it relates to child refugees, is in my opinion, akin to worrying about paying for education, infrastructure, health care, without worrying about the cost of war and our foreign policy thus far.
One interesting idea I read on Europe's crisis is that proactive involvement in facilitating economic development and crisis resolution in the countries where people are emigrating from is the only sustainable way to mitigate this. Do you think something like that can be applicable to the US and her immediate neighbors?
The United States needs to realize that central and south American countries are looking for partners, not big brothers.
The United States cannot continue to play kingmaker, support corrupt regimes, continue to give money to political institutions that are implicit in the killing and torturing of their own people and not expect the region to look at the U.S with a very wary and skeptical eye. The U.S. should look to expand opportunities, economic, educational and cultural with all of its neighbors in the region.
States have put legal hold of President Obama's executive action on immigration which could have provided respite to the millions facing deportation. How do you see this situation ever resolved? What can be a solution to this in your mind (feel free to speculate and idealize if needed, the idea is to try and brainstorm ideas).
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has put on hold the latest wave of deferred action. I believe this is the right policy. It is right for America and it is right for those individuals this policy is intended to benefit. Without more political pain being inflicted on the political class by the voters of this nation who see immigration reform as a priority issue – the right will continue to fight this so long as a majority believe this makes political sense. I am hoping a strong rebuke of candidates who are in favor of harsh immigration policies will find themselves without a public office and in possession of lots of time to reflect. This is a political question, one that the states and the courts and this administration have locked horns on. Reversing voter suppression efforts made by republicans in the various states, increasing youth voter turnout, educating the public on the socioeconomic good that this policy embodies are necessary to move this forward in a meaningful way.
I am hopeful that more people will get involved and make their political voices heard at the ballot box. With the recent actions taken by republicans in opposing immigration reform and Obama’s executive actions, I can assure you that this has motivated me to be much more politically active for the sole purpose of opposing republicans and their anti-immigrant/anti-tolerant policies.