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University of Iowa News Release


June 22, 2009

UI alumnus Cheeni Rao reads for 'Live from Prairie Lights' series

Cheeni Rao, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, will read from his memoir, "In Hanuman's Hands," at 7 p.m. Monday, July 6, in the Prairie Lights bookstore at 15 S. Dubuque St. in downtown Iowa City. The free event will be streamed live on the University of Iowa Writing University Web site,, and then will be available through the Writing University archive.

Rao describes the depths of his existence as a homeless drug addict on the streets of Chicago, and the battle for his soul through the Hindu gods Hanuman and Kali. The account also includes his first months in a no-nonsense halfway house and stories from his Indian ancestors.

A starred review in Publishers Weekly explained: "It's easy to dismiss his assertions as evidence of a mental breakdown -- even he entertains that possibility. But it's this divine intervention, the culmination of a family mythology handed down over generations, that gives Rao the strength to tackle his recovery: I'll be straight because that's what Hanuman wants, he tells a therapist.

"Even readers who have become jaded to the generic conventions of the addiction memoir -- criminal acts to support the growing habit, pushing away one's closest friends and so on -- will find themselves engrossed in Rao's spiritual journey, from the descent into a very personal hell to the slow climb back. Wherever his writing goes from here, this powerful debut is a signal to pay attention."

Donna Seaman wrote for Booklist, "Addiction and rehab memoirs abound, but few are as fiery, poetic, and cosmic as Rao's. Rooted in the great Hindu epics and enfolding a 'crackhead' retelling of the Ramayana, Rao's scorching self-portrait forthrightly bypasses factual accuracy to target 'core' realities and extreme psychic states.

"The son of Brahmin immigrants to Chicago from India, Rao came of age seriously smart, easily bored, and toxically angry. As he tells the harrowing story of his explosive rebellion and rough metamorphosis into an outlaw junkie, Rao seeks the sources of his demons in the bewitching tales of his forefathers, Hindu priests of fantastic powers who served Kali, the goddess of destruction.

"His own personal deity is Hanuman, the monkey god, who mocks and rescues him as Rao rejects the prayerful approach to the divine in favor of the instant karma of crack cocaine. That Rao managed to survive criminality, homelessness, and a nearly fatal drug habit to graduate from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop makes this a compelling memoir. But it is the rapture of his language; his hallucinatory, world-bridging storytelling; and his high-wire variations on the timeless struggles between truth and deception, good and evil, that make this journey to hell and back all-consuming and profound."

Rao is the winner of the Nick Adams Award for fiction and the Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Prize for fiction, and has had many of his stories published in nationally distributed journals. His three plays were produced by the Asian Theatre Project, and he has had a screenplay optioned by a major Hollywood studio.

He is the founder and owner of the Iowa Book Doctors, an editing firm that edits and ghostwrites manuscripts for publication and conducts online one-on-one instruction on the craft of writing.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Jan Weissmiller at Prairie Lights,; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073 (office) 319-430-1013 (cell),