Open City is Up!

Photo by Wan ParkHey there! Asian American Writers Workshop just launched 3 new fantastic online magazines.  I’m super excited to be writing about vegan eats and stories about food, culture and community in NYC  for Open City.    Check out first post here about the Ganesha Temple Canteen in Flushing.

Do also check out The Margins and CultureStrike.

Congrats to AAWW!

Official Launch Party is June 28.  Also there’s a Twitter Photo Contest.  My entry here.

The Salon: Subcontinental Shift- May 30th at Book Court

Hi folks,

I will be facilitating a discussion with this wonderful panel of authors at Book Court on May 30th.  Details below.

A Reading and Discussion About Modern India, the Indian Diaspora and Literature from and About the Region

Wed May 30, 7:00PM at BookCourt, 163 Court Street, Brooklyn

Hosts: Chiwoniso Kaitano-Price & Martin Rowe


Suketu Mehta is the New York-based author of ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found,’ which won the Kiriyama Prize and the Hutch Crossword Award, and was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, the Lettre Ulysses Prize, the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize, and the Guardian First Book Award. He has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. Mehta’s work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Granta, Harpers Magazine, Time, and Conde Nast Traveler, and has been featured on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’. Mehta is Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University. He is a graduate of New York University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India. He was born in northeastern India in 1970. His first novel, The Point of Return, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His reviews and journalism have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Guardian, The Nation, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. He came to New York on a literary fellowship in 1998, and now divides his time between India and New York.

Kamala Nair is the author of The Girl in the Garden. She was born in London and grew up in upstate New York, Vermont, and Minnesota. A graduate of Wellesley College, she studied literature at Oxford University and received an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2005. She currently lives in New York City.

Rajesh Parameswaran’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Fiction. “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan” was one of three stories for which McSweeney’s earned a National Magazine Award in 2007, and it was reprinted in The Best American Magazine Writing. He lives in New York City.


West View News: A More Cooper Union

The following was published in the May 2012 print issue of West View News, first in a series about Cooper Union:

A More Cooper Union

By Sangamithra Iyer

When I was 18 years old, I moved to the East Village for college. From my dorm room, I had view of the Empire State Building, but it was the other shiny pencil shaped tower in the skyline for which I was grateful. The Chrysler building funded my education.

I was a civil engineering student at The Cooper Union. The school owned the lands under the Chrysler Building and received rent and the equivalent of property taxes from this piece of real estate, which in turn helped fund full tuition scholarships to Cooper students. From the steps of 51 Astor Place, then the home of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering, I would look across the street to the other building I adored. Engraved on the outer ledges of Cooper Union’s Foundation building, a beautiful dedication: “To Science and Art.”

Who was this person who made such a gift?

In the opening pages of Edward Mack’s biography Peter Cooper: Citizen of New York, he describes the public’s response to Cooper’s death in 1883. During the six hours Cooper’s casket was available for viewing at the All Soul’s Church on 20th Street and Fourth Avenue, twelve thousand New Yorkers came and paid their respects. “The sentiment from every editorial pen and from every pulpit the following Sunday was that New York had lost its most beloved and possibly its greatest citizen,” Mack wrote.

With no formal education of his own, Cooper acquired wealth through innovation; his list of inventions includes Jell-O, a steam locomotive, and the Iron I-beam. Cooper played a key role in laying the transatlantic cable, was active in the abolitionist movement and an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. He was the Greenback Party’s presidential candidate in 1876. However, perhaps his greatest legacy was the founding of an educational institution, free of charge, for the working classes, one that since opening its doors in 1859 has not discriminated by race, gender, class or creed: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Since its beginnings, Cooper Union provided the city of New York with a center for innovation and forum for political discourse. In 1949, Mack wrote, “there was nothing like Cooper Union in New York in 1859, nor is there really anything like it today.”

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Satyagraha and The Way Forward

At one point during the Second Friends of Cooper Union Community Summit, President Jamshed Bharucha addressed the crowd and said, “I am telling you the truth. I believe in what is called satyagraha—in Sanskrit it is called truth force…I told the truth about the budget, the truth about the illusion that this institution has been in for at least 20 years if not more.”

Satyagraha is the name given to the nonviolent movement Gandhi led first in South Africa and later in India. Gandhi coined this term because he felt “passive resistance,” what it had been previously called, indicated a certain weakness, so he held a contest in his weekly newspaper Indian Opinion. In his biography of Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld notes that Gandhi’s nephew first suggested sadagraha, which meant firmness in cause. Gandhi changed it to satyagraha— firmness in truth. “To stand for truth was to stand for justice, and to do so nonviolently, offering a form of resistance that would eventually move even the oppressor to see that his position depended on the opposite, on untruth and force,” Lelyveld wrote.

My grandfather was a satyagrahi in India, and I used to edit an environmental and social justice magazine in Brooklyn called Satya. There, we translated satyagraha to be truth-action. Over the past several months, as we have been discussing the fate of The Cooper Union, I have seen examples of satyagraha. It is in the students who have been organizing, demonstrating, and protesting against a tuition policy that will not affect them directly, but will destroy an ideal they hold dear. It is in the discussions that students, faculty, alumni and staff have had online and in person, to share the information they’ve gathered and the hopes they have for the school. Satyagraha can be found in the Petition to Save Cooper Union Without Tuition, the pledge drive Money on The Table, the wiki page of community-powered solutions on the Cooper Union Community Task Force, the Alumni Pioneer and the webcomic Peter Cooper and the Demons of Debt. It is embodied in the work Friends of Cooper Union is doing to preserve Cooper Union’s “historic mission of free education and the excellence born of that mission.” Satyagraha is not merely admitting a problem. It is addressing the root cause of that crisis and offering another path. Satyagraha is well illustrated in the document prepared by the Friends of Cooper Union Community, The Way Forward:

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Tedx at Cooper Union and Primate People Anthology

Primate People: Saving Nonhuman Primates through Education, Advocacy, and Sanctuary (University of Utah Press) comes out this month.  I am very excited to read this anthology edited by Lisa Kemmerer with a forward by Marc Bekoff.  My story “Soiled Hands” is the closing essay in the this collection.

I am adapting this into a Tedx talk at Cooper Union on April 24, 2012 which is themed “Found in Translation.”


April 24th, 2012 (5pm-9pm)
41 Cooper Square
Third Avenue between 6th & 7th Streets
New York
The Cooper Union, Rose Auditorium

2nd Community Summit: Keep Cooper Free, Keep Cooper Wild

From Friends of Cooper Union:

On Thursday April 26, the second-ever Community Summit will be held in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. From 5:30-7:30pm, a panel discussion with distinguished alumni, faculty and students will address the current state of Cooper Union at a time when its administration is considering a devastating about-face on the historic mission of the college.

Panelists include: Day Gleeson, Peter Buckley, Tom Synnott, Litia Perta, Adriana Farmiga, John Leeper, Alan Lundgard, David Gersten and more (to be announced). 

Many of  us are beginning to feel a nickel-and-dime approach to saving the school may be prevailing at the expense of more thoughtful, principled action. So as the school year concludes and the Administration and Board of Trustees begin their final deliberations on the future of the college, the Community Summit will be an occasion to reaffirm the fundamental worth of Cooper Union and discuss its future.

At the same moment that Cooper Union’s administration considers tuition as a revenue stream—either for undergraduates or in an expanded, tuition-masters program—students all over the country are walking out to protest student loan debt, which nationwide has reached a staggering 1 trillion dollars. Cooper Union has the challenge and the momentous opportunity to lead by example and stand behind its unique mission of free higher education.

Meanwhile, the work that students, faculty and alumni have done in the last several months has shown that tuition doesn’t need to be on the table at all. In the coming days, an edited collection resulting from our community process will lay out details for a realistic financial way forward for Cooper Union and include the biggest and best ideas from the community on protecting and advancing the mission of the college.

Copies of this booklet will be available for free at the 2nd Community Summit, to be held on Thursday April 26 at 5:30pm in The Great Hall at Cooper Union.


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On Amateurs and Access

In speeches, radio interviews and meetings with alumni and stakeholders, Jamshed Bharucha, President of Cooper Union,has often brought up a lesser-known aspect of the school’s history: Cooper Union didn’t always provide a free tuition to all. In a speech last fall, he stated. “It is important to note that in the early years, approximately the first forty years, tuition was charged at Cooper Union. It wasn’t until 1902, when Andrew Carnegie made a large gift to the institution, that a tuition -free education was granted to students.”

In my meeting with the president and other alumni in December 2011, he reiterated this version of its history: “It was free for the working classes… It was never free for all until long after Peter Cooper was gone.” What Bharucha is referring to is a fraction of students in the female school of design, called “amateur” students who paid for their courses. He told us that “his [Cooper’s] actual policy when he was president was that those who could pay were charged.” But if you study the early documents, the extent, cost, context, and duration of the paying students in the early years are perhaps misrepresented in Bharucha’s narrative.

The first annual report discusses the amateurs in the School of Design for Women, the precursor to the school of art, (which later accepted male students in 1879):

“The instruction afforded in this school shall be given without charge, but the regulations may provide for the admission of amateur pupils for pay, so long as industrial pupils are not thereby excluded. All money received from such amateur pupils shall be applied to the support of the school…It will be perceived that in this school there is a departure from the invariable rule in the other department of the Union, that the instruction shall in all cases be entirely gratuitous. The Trustees were at first opposed to this deviation, but it was represented by the benevolent and enlightened ladies, who had established and maintained the school up to the time of its incorporation with the Union, that its character and usefulness would be impaired, if the wealthy and refined were entirely excluded from it; that the presence of ladies of leisure and refined tastes tended to raise the standard of art, and to give to the friendless associations of value in reference to their future careers. The Trustees, yielding to this argument, have limited the number of amateur pupils to one tenth of the total number instructed.”

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Low Lying Islands on High Moral Ground

Over at Brighter Green, I wrote this post on the film, The Island President, former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, and his defunct political magazine Sangu:

Last week, I had a chance to see The Island President, a film by Jon Shenk about Mohammed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives, and his fight for climate justice. Shenk followed Nasheed from his election in 2008, which overthrew 30 years of dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoon, through the COP 15 climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009. There, he was an impassioned advocate for the future of his country, a low-lying archipelago, vulnerable sea level rise.“What is the point of having a democracy, if you don’t have a country,” Nasheed asked, launching his battle to instill the reality of climate change to his fellow heads of state. Nasheed reminds us that Male, the capital of the Maldives, is no higher Manhattan. “What happens to the Maldives today is going to happen to everyone else tomorrow.” Continue reading

Putting a Value on Free Education

Last December, I had a chance to meet with Jamshed Bharucha, the new President of Cooper Union in his office with other Cooper Union Alumni.  During this meeting, I asked to what extent the tuition model has been developed. “On the question of how much tuition would be charged, how many would have to pay and how much of it they would have to pay, we’ve hired a consultant,” Bharucha said. “It’s a specialty now. It’s called enrollment management. We’ve hired one of the top enrollment management firms. They will do the market research.”

He reiterated that “any student that merits a Cooper Union education should not be denied one because of lack of affordability…but for those who can afford to pay—”

“Has that been defined?” I interjected, “for those who can afford to pay.”

“No it hasn’t been defined,” Bharucha said. “It is a consideration. It has to be costed out.”

While these items are costed out, and the ‘market research’ is performed, it is equally important to be able to articulate the value of a free education.

Last fall, Litia Perta, wrote a wonderful article in The Brooklyn Rail, called “Why Cooper Union Matters. ”  It  inspired many of us to think about our own Cooper experiences in a larger context.   The following is a personal reflection on my Cooper Union education that has been posted on the Friends of Cooper Union Testimonials Page:

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