From Conversations with Birds to dialogues on the world stage

Milkweed Staff — 11/30/2023

When Priyanka Kumar began writing her debut memoir, Conversations with Birds, she had a profound realization. Since the dawn of the Information Age, modern Americans have struggled to find fulfillment in their lives more than ever before—but to Kumar, the solution to this problem was surprisingly simple, and could be found in a single word. “We’re at a crossroads in the world,” Kumar says. “Our lives have become fragmented in so many ways by all these devices that we’re basically living inside of now. But there’s something in us that’s very human and wants to break open, that remembers a different way of living.” Whether you prefer the image of the chisel that will break us open, or the key that can unlock our memories, the single word at the heart of these metaphors is rasa (taken from the Sanskrit), which literally translates to juice, but can also mean essence. And at the heart of Kumar’s stunning book, she asks—and encourages readers to ask themselves—“How can we have more rasa in our lives?” 

On the surface, Conversations With Birds is a culmination of many of Kumar’s most revelatory experiences in the natural world; it is a memoir-in-anecdotes, an ode to birds, and an urgent warning about what we all stand to lose in the face of climate change and subsequent biodiversity loss. But beneath these layers, readers are invited to experience a journey that is inherently more spiritual and collective than what at first meets the eye. “My book is angled from a community-oriented lens,” Kumar says, “between people and wildlife. Both communities are fragmented and I’m concerned about both of them. How can we start the healing?”

In an interview with Shondaland, the naturalist filmmaker (and now author) opens up about her trajectory toward a new way of living and experiencing the world, beginning with her own dissatisfaction at her life in the West. “I thought that it was so fascinating that I was living in these iconic cities like Los Angeles and New York, and yet I’d been happier as a child in India. I wondered what was missing…I don’t know that any of us can truly articulate what is missing in our lives, but I do know that when I reentered the natural world, I found that I was closer to this juicy feeling of being alive and connected and in awe. What more can we ask for?”

Kumar invites readers to discover themselves anew by detaching from the isolation of technology and embracing time spent in nature with its wisest teachers: birds. Since the book’s publication in the Fall of 2022, Kumar’s words have amassed an impressively diverse readership beyond bird lovers. With a humbling tone of gratitude in her voice, Kumar refers to the impact of her book as tapping into “a cross-section of so many people, from lovers of literature to lovers of nature and birds, to people with climate anxiety. It speaks to a way of being with an ethical compass, from a journey charted over the course of twenty years. And it doesn’t just talk about a way of being, it shows you. It walks that way of being, which people are hungry for.”

To this last point, Kumar couldn’t be more correct: it was exactly this appetite for inclusive, revelatory, and demonstrative reading that would lead to an invitation for Kumar to read from her book and speak about environmental and species conservation at the PEN World Voices Festival, which took place this past year at the Huntington Gardens. Kumar was joined by Eloise Klein Healy, L.A.’s inaugural Poet Laureate and a life-long birdwatcher; and award-winning two-spirit poet Julian Talamantez Brolaski, lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter for Juan & the Pines.

Because life’s most valuable lessons bear repeating (and often warrant translation beyond a single medium), it’s no surprise that shortly after the PEN World Voices event, the Milkweed Editions team learned that a group of Emmy award-winning filmmakers have been following Kumar’s incredible journey. Kumar shared that one such experience with their group led them to the grasslands of New Mexico this past June, where she was able to show them the long billed curlew, which she proudly refers to as one of her “zen teachers.” But if there’s one thing Kumar herself may have taught, it’s that the best stories don’t simply recapture conversations about birds—they create them.

We look forward to witnessing the stunning culmination of the docu-series in progress, and we hope you’ll stay tuned for more exciting news in the coming months.