After she started the Hummingbird Global Writers’ Circle, Debotri Dhar had clear expectations for the first few meets.
She was fully prepared to be the lone attendee.
But people showed up, listened intently to her and other authors read from their books, and shared in meaningful conversations that informed Dhar her vision for the circle was attainable.
“For the first couple years, I always traveled with the idea that nobody will show up,” said Dhar, lecturer II in women’s and gender studies in LSA. “I’ll just be this Indian woman, standing there saying, ‘Hello, is anyone here?’ And that never happened.”
Dhar presented the idea of a writers’ circle in December 2016, during a visit with fellow writers to the New York home of her Ph.D. supervisor at Rutgers University. Dhar loves to travel and wondered whether those at the Tribeca heritage home thought a transnational, traveling literary initiative was plausible.
“The idea was I would go to these different places and find indie bookstores, nonprofits and other local venues that are writers’ hubs,” she said. “Invite the community to come and read from their work, and we would have a theme and everyone would read around that. We’d have a combination of established and emerging writers and would also welcome those who are just thinking about writing.”
Dhar said she centered the idea around the hummingbird, a small but determined bird that is “a model of strength and resilience.”
While the first meeting and book reading of the Hummingbird Global Writers’ Circle was in New York, Dhar has planned and hosted literary gatherings in California, Oregon, Wisconsin and Texas. She also hosted one in Michigan, at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender on U-M’s campus.
Each event has a theme, sometimes centered around the location and sometimes unrelated. Past themes have included writing gender, myth, work, homes and steep hills — the latter aligning perfectly with one of the settings, in the shadows of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California in 2017.
Dhar promotes upcoming visits on The Hummingbird Global Writers’ Circle page on Facebook. The page started out with a modest four followers — Dhar, her parents and her sister — but has since grown to more than 600 followers.
“My heart feels full just thinking about it. There was such warmth among people who didn’t know me and I didn’t know them,” she said of the meets. “In each and every instance, what I’ve come away with are these wonderful friendships. Many of those who have attended a Hummingbird meet are on my Facebook. We keep in touch and often share our work with each other.”
That’s not to say Dhar wants to see hundreds of people at the next in-person meet. She said the ideal size for a gathering is around 20 people, but since travel was muddied by the COVID-19 pandemic, two virtual meets allowed audiences of up to 200 to attend.
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The last in-person meet was in Dallas, Texas, at the Dallas Fairmont in May 2019. The first virtual Hummingbird meet was in April 2020, with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also conducted a virtual meet in October 2020 that included one of her literature classes connecting with David James Poissant, author of “Lake Life,” a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.
“We do have budding writers in that class, so I had some students reading alongside and being heard by this award-winning author,” Dhar said. “He was very encouraging, and students spoke to me afterward saying it was great and they loved it.”
As successful as the virtual meets have been, a hummingbird is not a caged bird and Dhar is eager to take the writers’ circle around the country again. A meet with a theme of love, scheduled in Atlanta for January, has been postponed to April and will be in-person.
Dhar hopes to visit Seattle for another meet later this summer. She has received invitations to visit 11 countries to host meets, including her native India, she said.
Central to the meets — along with the theme, location and food — are the discussions and conversations that result from the readings. Dhar said disagreements are encouraged, provided they are communicated in a warm and welcoming way.
“We’re going to do this in a way that we can encourage dialogue and nurture friendships,” she said. “It’s harder than it sounds, but we’ve achieved this in the literary meets so far. I’m tremendously grateful and humbled and frankly amazed at the fact that it’s worked as well as it has for so many meets.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
One such moment was when a student wanted to write a blog about my work and travels from India to the U.K. to the United States, for Women’s History Month. As an author who writes across genres — scholarly, creative nonfiction, fiction — my work gets covered by newspapers and magazines even globally, but this is a wholly different realm of delight.
What can’t you live without?
Good books, good work, good friends, good (spicy!) food. Plus creativity, growth, and a solid sense of adventure, challenging my own limits and exploring new horizons. The destination matters little; it is more about the journey, its risks and rewards.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
So many. Michigan League, the fountains, Hill Auditorium for cultural events, the Diag where I sometimes stand and gaze out over Central Campus, the steps of Angell Hall and the library, the green canopy of trees under which we read in spring and summer.
What inspires you?
The life stories of talented people who come from humble backgrounds, with no inherited wealth or family connections, and achieve remarkable things for themselves and for society. I grew up in homes with leaking ceilings, long electricity outages (it was called load-shedding), and an apartment so tiny my father had to stoop. New books were a luxury, and yet I was still privileged. Humanitarian leadership sprung from modest milieus, and with a global, innovative vision, inspires me.
What are you currently reading?
“Autotheory as Feminist Practice” by Lauren Fournier, “Blue Horses” and other poetry by Mary Oliver, “Silence is my Mother Tongue” by Sulaiman Addonia.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My master’s supervisor at Oxford, Colin Brock, and my Ph.D. supervisor at Rutgers, M. Josephine Diamond, who staunchly supported my work and my need for independent judgment. Here at U-M, I must mention Gloria Thomas, the then-director of the Center for the Education of Women. I was only a visiting scholar but still formally introduced and welcomed, and never demeaned or devalued. She gave me a winter coat when I was cold, invited me into her home and big, beautiful kitchen where I could cook to my heart’s content, and still continues to support my professional goals and accomplishments.