Priyanka
Essayist & Writer of Fiction
Filmmaker
Travels from: New Mexico

A delightful ode to birds and a powerful defense of the planet we share with them…. An eloquent depiction of how birding engenders a deep love of our ecosystems and a more profound understanding of ourselves. – Kirkus Reviews

Priyanka Kumar is the author of Conversations with BirdsHer essays and criticism appear in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Huffington Post, and High Country News. She is a recipient of the Aldo & Estella Leopold Writing Residency, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award, a New Mexico/New Visions Governor’s Award, a Canada Council for the Arts Grant, an Ontario Arts Council Literary Award, and an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Fellowship.

A graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Kumar wrote, directed and produced the feature documentary The Song of the Little Road, starring Martin Scorsese and Ravi Shankar. Kumar has taught at the University of California Santa Cruz and the University of Southern California, and serves on the Board of Directors at the Leopold Writing Program.

Conversations With Birds

Milkweed Editions |
Nonfiction

“Birds are my almanac. They tune me into the seasons, and into myself.” So begins this lively collection of essays by acclaimed filmmaker and novelist Priyanka Kumar. Growing up at the feet of the Himalayas in northern India, Kumar took for granted her immersion in a lush natural world. After moving to North America as a teenager, she found herself increasingly distanced from more than human life, and discouraged by the civilization she saw contributing to its destruction. It was only in her twenties, living in Los Angeles and working on films, that she began to rediscover her place in the landscape — and in the cosmos — by way of watching birds. Tracing her movements across the American West, this stirring collection of essays brings the avian world richly to life.

Kumar’s perspective is not that of a list keeper, counting and cataloguing species. Rather, from the mango-colored western tanager that rescues her from a bout of altitude sickness in Sequoia National Park to ancient sandhill cranes in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and from the snowy plovers building shallow nests with bits of shell and grass to the white-breasted nuthatch that regularly visits the apricot tree behind her family’s casita in Sante Fe, for Kumar, birds “become a portal to a more vivid, enchanted world.” At a time when climate change, habitat loss, and the reckless use of pesticides are causing widespread extinction of species, Kumar’s reflections on these messengers from our distant past and harbingers of our future offer luminous evidence of her suggestion that “seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”

Take Wing and Fly Here

Sherman Asher Publishing |
Fiction

Take Wing and Fly Here is the first novel in Priyanka Kumar’s New West Trilogy, which explores our changing relationship with the outdoors in the American West. Set in Southern California, this delightful novel about birding tells the story of a Ph.D. candidate in physics whose life begins to unravel after he takes on a Big Year challenge. J.K.’s main competitor is the president of the oldest birding society in America, which is facing bankruptcy in its Centennial year. A brilliant, tightly woven narrative about ambition and fraught relationships, all while pursuing birds in the beautiful California hills and coast.

Conversations With Birds

From a mango-colored western tanager in Sequoia National Park to ancient sandhill cranes in the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to the white-breasted nuthatch that visits her in Sante Fe, for Kumar, birds are “a portal to a more vivid, enchanted world.” At a time when climate change, habitat loss, and the reckless use of pesticides are causing widespread extinction of species, Kumar’s reflections on these messengers from our distant past and harbingers of our future offer luminous evidence of her suggestion that “seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”

 

Our Fragmented Attention Span And The Fragmentation of Nature

he 21st century might well become infamous for shattering what remains of our ability to concentrate—an overreliance on technology fragments our attention in the same way that thoughtless industrialization and development fragmented the natural world. This talk explores how we might move toward healing our attention and nature herself.

Birds And Their Ecosystems

In a time of climate crisis, we can no longer think of birds in isolation without also considering their ecosystems—the web of plant and animal communities they depend on. This talk delves into what the burrowing owl and the long-billed curlew can teach us about restoring grasslands, and how the northern goshawk can point the way to protecting old-growth forests.

The Playing Lives of Birds

This talk explores the fascinating world of bird play, whether it is the solo play of an orange-crowned warbler, the object play of a scrub jay, or the social play of juvenile bald eagles. Scientific research shows that birds who engage in play, especially social play, have the largest brain mass, relative to body size, and even the longest life spans. Could these findings have implications for how play impacts human brains and lifespans?

Reading the Natural World and Deriving Joy from It

Listeners are invited to think about what it means to read the natural world and derive joy from it. Can we cultivate a greater oneness—physical and psychological—with nature? The crises that birds are experiencing in the age of climate change underscore that we need to transform the way we live on this planet. Paradoxically, watching an elusive green-tailed towhee take its sweet time exploring a garden can also inspire us to stay in this moment, to be fully alive to the here and now. If we are going to do the hard work of reversing the damage we have caused, can finding joy in nature be a part of it?

The Light Between Apple Trees

We are finally talking about global warming and drought, but how are extreme fluctuations in temperature and precipitation convulsing the land? We journey to historic orchards where apple trees go on braiding lives across generations but we also meet a veteran farmer who has grown apple and pear trees for decades and won’t be planting any more trees. In a time of crisis, what does it mean to live a life that engages with the land? For if we aren’t reading the land, how can we feel its rhythms? How can we know how those rhythms are changing with global warming?

Wanted: A Climate-Ready Garden

An epiphany in 2009 made Kumar desire a mature garden thrumming with pollinators and native plants. But the Southwest has been in a megadrought since 2000 and, after returning from an overseas trip in 2013, she found her own garden devastated. This talk explores how we can cultivate resilient and climate-ready gardens, focusing not only on xeric plants with low-water needs, but also on perennial edibles and climate-ready trees.

Eco Fiction: Its Beginnings

We will journey through literary landscapes beginning with eastern mythological stories and moving on to Dante and the novels of Jens Peter Jacobson, who was a major influence on the poet Rainer Marie Rilke. These might be surprising figures and stories to consider in the context of eco fiction, but we will explore what they teach us about the art of seeing and storying the natural world.

What Martin Luther King jr. Learned from Gandhi

“To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.” This is not a quote from George Harrison. It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said when he visited India in 1959. This talk will explore how Gandhi inspired King to pursue the path of nonviolence. Why King saw himself as a pilgrim to India is relevant not only to the American Civil Rights Movement, but also to the chronic violence that plagues us today.

Coming Soon!

Priyanka Kumar’s Upcoming Events

Honors, Awards & Recognition

2020 Aldo and Estella Leopold Resident
Recipient, Aldo & Estella Leopold Writing Residency
Recipient, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award
Recipient, New Mexico/New Visions Governor’s Award
Recipient, Canada Council for the Arts Grant
Recipient, Ontario Arts Council Literary Award
Recipient, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Fellowship
Board of Directors, Leopold Writing Program

 

Media clips

LARB | What King Learned from Gandhi

Best Nonfiction Books and Memoirs Coming in 2022

The Last Word: Conversations With Writers | Interview with Priyanka Kumar 

The New York Times | The Harsh Realities of Being Indigenous in North America

 

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