Monthly Archives: August 2014

Hopscotching To 100: An Appreciation Of Julio Cortázar


An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires.i
i

An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Getty Images

An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires.

An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Getty Images

First thing I noticed on the cover was his mouth, which was half open, midlaugh. Next, his teeth; not the best set I’d ever seen. After that, of course, his pronounced unibrow — thick and equally unbecoming. There was the cat, too, posted on the windowsill. Its eyes were dead set on the playful man with the camera and the mouth and the teeth and bushy eyebrow. All this and the words Save Twilight. I thumbed through the little book some and paid for it — cost me about a dollar at the used book shop. I didn’t know I was about to be introduced to an author so intelligent and inventive, so able to draw me in with his words. (Or that he’d named the cat on the cover Theodor W. Adorno, after the German sociologist and philosopher.)

This week marks 100 years since the birth of Julio Cortázar, the Argentine novelist and short story writer. Although people pay less attention to his poetry, it too was exceptional, imbued with his great love for music, history and art. Cortázar remains one of the most revered writers of the past several decades, and also — naturally — among the most emulated. Through the years, his distinctive prose style has spawned scores of copycats.

Born in Belgium in 1914, Cortázar settled with his family in Argentina after World War I. There, he was educated and began taking steps toward what would become a career in literature. In 1947, he published his first story, “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”), in a magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. He moved to Paris, finding work as an interpreter and translator — and it was in Paris that he hit his stride, publishing his first novel, The Winners, in 1960.

But Cortázar’s second novel, Hopscotch, is his masterpiece. It’s an open-ended story made up of 155 episodic chapters, and in it, Cortázar invites the reader to participate in a game of sorts, where time is a blur and entire sections of the book are “expendable” — the reader being exhorted to skip chapters and reread others. Its peculiar nature, in essence a story of love and loss, has earned Hopscotch a reputation as one of the most innovative works to come out of any place, any time.

Along with Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortázar was a prominent figure in the Latin American boom of the ’60s and ’70s. It was the era that brought us some of the most influential works of the Latin American canon, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Time of the Hero. While much of that period was steeped in political turmoil, it was also a kind of renaissance — a time where many writers and critics from around Latin America were beginning to gain recognition in America and Europe.

As for short stories, Cortázar did much to raise the bar, challenging norms and breaking the rules of traditional storytelling. Many of his stories and sketches, in fact, read like hallucinations, muddying the waters between reality and fantasy; his characters often seem to straddle alternate worlds. Take “Axolotl,” in which a man turns into a salamander and watches the outside world through the aquarium glass. Or “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” one of his most striking tales. It’s a suicide note of a kind: While it starts off sweetly enough — with a man agreeing to move in with his girlfriend — it takes a turn for the horrific as the man starts to vomit up rabbits, one after the other. Some of his fellow boom writers worked the realms of magical realism — but Cortázar walked in entirely different territory.

He was also an amateur jazz musician, who once said he “played the trumpet as a relief.” His obvious passion for the instrument turns up in his work, in the improvisational techniques and the many references to jazz players.

I remember it so clearly, standing in that bookshop all those years ago, killing time on a lunch break. To this day, that tiny book — and Cortázar’s poetry in general — just resonates. There’s a subtle beauty to it that I’ve never been able to articulate, like the rhythm of a dream, but real and raw and chock full of fire. Of all his works, it’s what I come back to the most.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.

Hip-Hop In Print: Brooklyn Publisher Looks To ‘Reverse Gentrify’ Literature


Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.i
i

Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.

Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

H.N.I.C.

The Coldest Winter Ever

At this summer’s Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, thousands turned up for readings by big-name authors: Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith and Albert Johnson. Odds are the name Albert Johnson doesn’t ring a bell. But if you’re a hip-hop fan, you might recognize the author by another name: Prodigy. Off and on for the past 20 years, he’s been one half of the acclaimed Queens, N.Y., duo Mobb Deep.

Prodigy says he began his debut novel, H.N.I.C., over a decade ago and, with the help of co-writer Savile, it wasn’t hard to translate the somber realism he expresses in songs to the page.

“Writing lyrics, I pull from my real life,” Prodigy says. “A lot of negativity that goes on in my world, in my neighborhood, with my friends, negative things I had to deal with — I take that negative energy and instead of doing something bad with it, I put it into my music.”

Rappers taking on book publishing has become something of a trend. 50 Cent has his own imprint with Gallery Books; Simon & Schuster has Cash Money Content, run by the heads of Cash Money Records, home to Drake and Nicki Minaj. Titles on these imprints are often classified as “street lit” or “urban fiction”: gritty, hard-boiled stories about gangsters, crime and the streets. But Prodigy’s not a fan of those labels, and neither is his publisher, Johnny Temple, of Akashic Books.

“So-called ‘urban lit’ is the closest thing publishing has to hip-hop music,” Temple says. “And just as when hip-hop came around, everyone thought it was going to last two years, and now it’s transformed the landscape of the world of music, I’ve always believed strongly that urban lit has great potential.”

The genre has its roots in the 1960s and ’70s, with such authors as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes. Its current renaissance goes back about 15 years, to The Coldest Winter Ever, a hit novel by rapper Sister Souljah. That book’s blockbuster success transformed an indie genre into a corporate money maker, says K’wan, an author with more than 20 novels under his belt.

“Initially we weren’t getting advances,” K’wan recalls. “We made our money from our hustle, the out-of-the-trunk hustle. So when the major publishers came in, they started throwing these advances like, ‘Hey, this is what it is: I’ll give you six figures if you write two or three books.’ And you’re like, ‘Wow, you’re going to give me six figures up front — all mine?’ So, off to the races.”

Black Lotus

Kwan’s latest, Black Lotus, is published by an imprint of Akashic that’s curated by Prodigy. It’s called Infamous Books, and publisher Johnny Temple says Akashic’s goal is simple: “Akashic’s slogan — it’s slightly tongue in cheek but not really — is ‘reverse gentrification of the literary world.’ And Infamous Books is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of that motto.”

For his part, as curator of Infamous, Prodigy says he’s interested in titles that teach — books with a moral. And that grows in part out of the three years he spent in prison on a gun-possession charge.

“Having that time, it helped me to learn what other inmates were going through, and the system and how it works,” Prodigy says. “So I guess when I’m writing something that pertains to that, it’s a little bit more authentic than if I didn’t live through it. ‘Cause I’ve seen it, I lived through it, I know what’s going on in there.

“So it definitely made me want to talk about it and let people know what’s going on in there, and let young people know: That’s not where you want to be. ‘Cause you can go to jail for something small and end up doing 10 years, life, for something that happens in there — a lot of things happen in jail. So it definitely influences the way I tell the story and the stories I choose to tell.”

And it’s not just his stories he wants to tell through Infamous Books.

“I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot,” Prodigy says. “His books are real good. Books where you can learn something: health, religion, the food industry, government, politics, federal reserve system, monetary system — how things started and got to the way it is today.”

Topics, in other words, that don’t bear labels.

Syrian Artists Denied Visas, And A Voice In The U.S.


Syria: The Trojan Women inserts current events into an ancient Greek tragedy, performed here in Amman, Jordan, in 2013.i
i

Syria: The Trojan Women inserts current events into an ancient Greek tragedy, performed here in Amman, Jordan, in 2013.

Lynn Alleva Lilley/Lynn Alleva Lilley


hide caption

itoggle caption

Lynn Alleva Lilley/Lynn Alleva Lilley

Syria: The Trojan Women inserts current events into an ancient Greek tragedy, performed here in Amman, Jordan, in 2013.

Syria: The Trojan Women inserts current events into an ancient Greek tragedy, performed here in Amman, Jordan, in 2013.

Lynn Alleva Lilley/Lynn Alleva Lilley

The Trojan Women, by Euripides, is a Greek tragedy written 2,500 years ago that war keeps timely.

It’s about a group of women who struggle to survive in Troy after the town has been sacked. When one of the women cries out, “Our country, our conquered country, perishes … O land that reared my children!” it’s hard not to hear those words echo today, through Syria, in Iraq and in Ukraine.

A new production, re-staged by two American filmmakers and Omar Abu Saada, the Syrian director now living in Cairo, was set to open next month at Georgetown University, then move on to Columbia University. It’s called Syria: The Trojan Women, and it has already been presented in Amman, Jordan, with a cast of 12 Syrian women who work in their own real-life stories of loss, death and exile.

But the play’s scheduled U.S. performances have been postponed, and may have to be canceled. The U.S. State Department rejected the women’s applications for entertainer’s visas because they are refugees, now stranded in Jordan. The State Department worries that they might try to stay in the United States, even though they have families and small children in Jordan.

Section 214b of the Immigration Act requires people who want to come to work in the United States to prove they have a home overseas and “no intention of abandoning it.” That sounds like especially ugly language to turn on refugees, whose homes may be bombed or burned.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer hired by Georgetown, says that since 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security has gotten more involved in approving visas for artists — or not.

“It is affecting the arts across the board,” Ginsburg told the Washington Post. “It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved” for artist visas.

The U.S. State Department is probably not silly to think artists who perform in the United States may get a taste of fast food and freedom and try to stay. The ballet companies of America are richer because of Cuban and Russian dancers who took the stage here and stayed. Quite a few U.S. baseball clubs are better, too.

But Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, and co-chair of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, says it’s American audiences who may lose out on hearing Euripides’ classic lines, uttered with the passion and poignance of Syrian women who now struggle through their own tragedies.

“This is the greatest tragedy,” says Ambassador Schneider, “because in the United States we really don’t have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS.”

Hip-Hop In Print: Brooklyn Publisher Looks To ‘Reverse Gentrify’ Literature


Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.i
i

Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.

Rapper Prodigy, shown above performing in New York City, published his debut novel, H.N.I.C., in 2013.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

H.N.I.C.

The Coldest Winter Ever

At this summer’s Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, thousands turned up for readings by big-name authors: Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith and Albert Johnson. Odds are the name Albert Johnson doesn’t ring a bell. But if you’re a hip-hop fan, you might recognize the author by another name: Prodigy. Off and on for the past 20 years, he’s been one half of the acclaimed Queens, N.Y., duo Mobb Deep.

Prodigy says he began his debut novel, H.N.I.C., over a decade ago and, with the help of co-writer Savile, it wasn’t hard to translate the somber realism he expresses in songs to the page.

“Writing lyrics, I pull from my real life,” Prodigy says. “A lot of negativity that goes on in my world, in my neighborhood, with my friends, negative things I had to deal with — I take that negative energy and instead of doing something bad with it, I put it into my music.”

Rappers taking on book publishing has become something of a trend. 50 Cent has his own imprint with Gallery Books; Simon & Schuster has Cash Money Content, run by the heads of Cash Money Records, home to Drake and Nicki Minaj. Titles on these imprints are often classified as “street lit” or “urban fiction”: gritty, hard-boiled stories about gangsters, crime and the streets. But Prodigy’s not a fan of those labels, and neither is his publisher, Johnny Temple, of Akashic Books.

“So-called ‘urban lit’ is the closest thing publishing has to hip-hop music,” Temple says. “And just as when hip-hop came around, everyone thought it was going to last two years, and now it’s transformed the landscape of the world of music, I’ve always believed strongly that urban lit has great potential.”

The genre has its roots in the 1960s and ’70s, with such authors as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes. Its current renaissance goes back about 15 years, to The Coldest Winter Ever, a hit novel by rapper Sister Souljah. That book’s blockbuster success transformed an indie genre into a corporate money maker, says K’wan, an author with more than 20 novels under his belt.

“Initially we weren’t getting advances,” K’wan recalls. “We made our money from our hustle, the out-of-the-trunk hustle. So when the major publishers came in, they started throwing these advances like, ‘Hey, this is what it is: I’ll give you six figures if you write two or three books.’ And you’re like, ‘Wow, you’re going to give me six figures up front — all mine?’ So, off to the races.”

Black Lotus

Kwan’s latest, Black Lotus, is published by an imprint of Akashic that’s curated by Prodigy. It’s called Infamous Books, and publisher Johnny Temple says Akashic’s goal is simple: “Akashic’s slogan — it’s slightly tongue in cheek but not really — is ‘reverse gentrification of the literary world.’ And Infamous Books is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of that motto.”

For his part, as curator of Infamous, Prodigy says he’s interested in titles that teach — books with a moral. And that grows in part out of the three years he spent in prison on a gun-possession charge.

“Having that time, it helped me to learn what other inmates were going through, and the system and how it works,” Prodigy says. “So I guess when I’m writing something that pertains to that, it’s a little bit more authentic than if I didn’t live through it. ‘Cause I’ve seen it, I lived through it, I know what’s going on in there.

“So it definitely made me want to talk about it and let people know what’s going on in there, and let young people know: That’s not where you want to be. ‘Cause you can go to jail for something small and end up doing 10 years, life, for something that happens in there — a lot of things happen in jail. So it definitely influences the way I tell the story and the stories I choose to tell.”

And it’s not just his stories he wants to tell through Infamous Books.

“I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot,” Prodigy says. “His books are real good. Books where you can learn something: health, religion, the food industry, government, politics, federal reserve system, monetary system — how things started and got to the way it is today.”

Topics, in other words, that don’t bear labels.

Not My Job: Gov. Deval Patrick Gets Quizzed On Burning Man


Gov. Deval Patrick offers remarks to Harvard Democrats in Cambridge, focusing on community engagement and generational responsibility on April 28.i
i
Gov. Deval Patrick offers remarks to Harvard Democrats in Cambridge, focusing on community engagement and generational responsibility on April 28.

Deval Patrick was elected governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2006. He’s finishing his second and final term, and he clearly no longer cares because he’s agreed to join us to play our quiz.

We’ve invited him to answer three questions about Burning Man, the annual art festival/hippie magnet taking place in the desert of northern Nevada.

In An Earthquake, History Fuels One Writer’s Anxiety


A Crack in the Edge of the World

While most of America is thinking burgers and swimming this Labor Day weekend, I can’t stop thinking about earthquakes.

Last Sunday, a shaker registering magnitude 6.0 struck the Napa Valley in Northern California. It injured dozens and caused about $1 billion in damages. National media coverage focused on how the quake affected the area’s famous wine industry — because America needs to know that our stock of cabs and zinfandels is safe.

I, on the other hand, immediately remembered the Big One: the catastrophic quake that seismologists have long predicted will wreak havoc on Southern California someday… but no one knows when. So every little movement, every sway of a lamp or rattle of pans puts me on edge, makes me duck and cover. And after the Napa quake, I turned to Simon Winchester’s excellent book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 — you know, for some light reading.

The book was released on the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed over 3,000 people and essentially leveled the city. Winchester details the devastation — houses turned into piles of sticks, blocks leveled by fires that followed, thousands left homeless for months. But the book’s most terrifying passage takes place on the morning of the quake. Here, Winchester describes the calm before the disaster hit: “The breeze was westerly but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace.”

Cliched? Sure. But that’s the scary thing about earthquakes: You never know when they’re coming, or where.

Only one thing is certain: Scientists say the San Andreas Fault that caused the San Francisco quake will unleash the Big One sooner rather than later. So I guess I’ll just wait for it, and read and reread Winchester’s book again until then. Happy Labor Day!

Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

In An Earthquake, History Fuels One Writer’s Anxiety


A Crack in the Edge of the World

While most of America is thinking burgers and swimming this Labor Day weekend, I can’t stop thinking about earthquakes.

Last Sunday, a shaker registering magnitude 6.0 struck the Napa Valley in Northern California. It injured dozens and caused about $1 billion in damages. National media coverage focused on how the quake affected the area’s famous wine industry — because America needs to know that our stock of cabs and zinfandels is safe.

I, on the other hand, immediately remembered the Big One: the catastrophic quake that seismologists have long predicted will wreak havoc on Southern California someday… but no one knows when. So every little movement, every sway of a lamp or rattle of pans puts me on edge, makes me duck and cover. And after the Napa quake, I turned to Simon Winchester’s excellent book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 — you know, for some light reading.

The book was released on the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed over 3,000 people and essentially leveled the city. Winchester details the devastation — houses turned into piles of sticks, blocks leveled by fires that followed, thousands left homeless for months. But the book’s most terrifying passage takes place on the morning of the quake. Here, Winchester describes the calm before the disaster hit: “The breeze was westerly but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace.”

Cliched? Sure. But that’s the scary thing about earthquakes: You never know when they’re coming, or where.

Only one thing is certain: Scientists say the San Andreas Fault that caused the San Francisco quake will unleash the Big One sooner rather than later. So I guess I’ll just wait for it, and read and reread Winchester’s book again until then. Happy Labor Day!

Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

Cantinflas, With His Puns And Satire, Is Back (And Still Relevant)


Mario Moreno, known as Cantinflas, is a beloved icon in Latin America. A new biopic about the comic opens this weekend in the U.S.i
i

Mario Moreno, known as Cantinflas, is a beloved icon in Latin America. A new biopic about the comic opens this weekend in the U.S.

AFP/Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

AFP/Getty Images

Mario Moreno, known as Cantinflas, is a beloved icon in Latin America. A new biopic about the comic opens this weekend in the U.S.

Mario Moreno, known as Cantinflas, is a beloved icon in Latin America. A new biopic about the comic opens this weekend in the U.S.

AFP/Getty Images

Charlie Chaplin reportedly called him the “greatest comedian alive.” Mexican actor Mario Moreno, or “Cantinflas” as he was known, starred in scores of films from the 1930s up to the 1980s. In Latin America, he’s a beloved icon. In the U.S., he’s best known for his Golden Globe-winning turn as the ingenious valet Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days.

A new film about the legendary comic opens in U.S. theaters this weekend and will soon premiere in Mexico.

Cantinflas is so popular, he even changed the Spanish language. There’s a verb in Spanish: cantinflear. It means to talk in so many circles and puns that everyone ends up completely confused. It was the character’s signature move when caught in a tight spot.

He was a scrappy, mouthy, working-class hero, with a mustache like quotation marks around his mouth. He always saved the day, and he always got the girl.

In the new movie, Cantinflas is played by Spanish actor Oscar Jaenada. True to form, the dialogue throughout the movie is filled with slang and double entendres. This is a pillar of Mexican humor, according to Gustavo Arellano, who writes the column “Ask a Mexican for the OC Weekly in Southern California.

“When Americans think of Mexican humor, they think of the big, over-the-top pratfalls. But Mexican humor is far more complex than that,” Arellano says. “I would argue far more interesting in wordplay than American has even ever tried to. And Cantinflas, with all his puns and double entendres, was the grand exemplar of that.”

But will today’s audiences still find him funny?

Pantelion Films, the brainchild of Lionsgate and Televisa, is banking on it. The studio has been courting the booming Latino market in the U.S. The film is mostly in Spanish — except for the scenes that take place in Hollywood where Michael Imperioli of Sopranos fame plays Mike Todd, the American producer who fights to bring Cantinflas to the U.S.

The film’s producers are betting not only that audiences will still find Cantiflas funny but that they will also continue to connect with his political satire. Lead actor Jaenada says that word for word, everything Cantinflas said in his films about politics rings true today in Latin America.

Early on in the biopic, there’s a scene in which a young, very poor Cantinflas goes to a fancy theater house and watches a satire about political corruption. In the audience, a bloated politician laughs raucously. “You see?” a friend leans over and tells Cantinflas. “In real life, they never admit their wrongs. But when they see them played out on a stage, they laugh.” Cantinflas took that advice and ran with it.

Check out the scene of the classic 1952 Cantinflas movie If I Were a Deputy.

Cantinflas is a barber giving a haircut to a crooked government official, who is threatening him. Cantinflas starts lecturing the official about democracy. It’s Cantinflas 101: going around in confusing, pun-filled circles. But the joke is on the politician. “You know what a democracy is, sir?” Cantinflas asks. “No,” the corrupt politician responds. “Do you?”

“Well I don’t know, sir. But I can imagine,” Cantinflas says.

This is what made Cantinflas so beloved. Professor Juan Gabriel Moreno, who teaches theater at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, says Cantinflas’ revenge against the rich and authorities is the revenge of Mexico itself.

Gabriel Moreno says you have to understand what was happening in Latin America at the time: So much of the continent was under abusive oligarchic dictatorships. Cantinflas was just another guy trying to survive.

And when he bamboozled a cop or a politician, Cantinflas was just doing what an entire people fantasized about doing: talking back.

A Photographer Captures The Often-Overlooked ‘Aunty’ Couture


“Ugh, she dresses like SUCH an aunty!” is usually not something you’d want to hear about your style, if you’re South-Asian.

An “aunty” or “aunty-ji” (depending on where you want to fall on the graph of respect and familiarity) is what you call a lady roughly around your mother’s age. So, the family friend who has seen you grow up, your mom’s co-worker, the lady next to you in the grocery line or the nosy neighbor whose questions about your love-life you endure because she makes a killer biryani — they all qualify.

While the stereotype makes aunties famous only for food and unsolicited advice, their style — like this salwar-kurta and sneakers combo, a staple — has not always been in the spotlight. Until now.

Sunita Aunty

“Upping the Aunty” is a mixed-media art project started by Toronto-based artist Meera Sethi, who’s trying to debunk this myth that aunties don’t have swag. In the project’s first phase, Sethi took photos of women in Mumbai and Toronto and posted them on her Tumblr and Instagram — kind of a street style series.

Shoba Aunty

“You see such great, such interesting ways of putting things together,” she says. “I wanted to capture that — the colors and the patterns and the accessories — the whole package.”

Rashida Aunty

For Sethi, the purpose is to question how we look at fashion – what makes something cool? What makes something worthy of attention? And then start looking at “other markers of fashion and other notions of style.”

Ramvati Aunty

The other goal behind the project was to pay homage to the aunties like the ones that surrounded Sethi herself, while she was growing up in Toronto. They are “cultural figures,” Sethi says, who have made many contributions to their societies and communities.

In fact, aunties permeated the lives of Sethi and her South Asian friends to such an extent that even when they weren’t physically present, they would often pop up in conversations and jokes.

“(We would) engage in ‘aunty-speak’ — so using maybe voices and phrases that our aunties have used, with each other, sort of, in jest,” Sethi says.

Gunalaxsmi Aunty

Spurred by these conversations and a plethora of aunty-themed Internet memes and YouTube videos, Sethi started thinking about the cultural knowledge that gets passed on by aunties — especially in diaspora communities.

After a spell of linguistic “pun”-ditry determined the project’s title, it all came together. The title isn’t just ornamental though. Sethi literally intends to take the project to another level: she wants to collect more photos, have more conversations with aunties about their style and then paint portraits of them embellishing that style.

Suproba Aunty

As she works towards these ambitions, Sethi relishes the individual connections she makes with her muses when she stops them for the picture.

“At first, they might be puzzled or surprised that I want to take their photo but generally, they’re flattered,” she says. “Some of them have told me I’ve made their day or given me a hug.”