.Hemu Aggarwal at Occidental Center for the Arts

Hemu Aggarwal is not one to let life pass her by.

Born in Veraval, Gujarat State, India, she earned her master’s in graphic design from the City University of New York and is an artist by profession. 

Now the graphic designer, painter, poet and fashion designer brings her book, The Forbidden Letters: A True Story, to the Occidental Center for the Arts (OCA) for a free reading and slide show on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 4pm.

This, her first book, is an ambitious project. “A century ago, nearly 500 letters were found in an attic,” reads the book’s back cover. “They tell the story of a young couple’s life, married when they were still teenagers, but separated for eight years. The letters describe their love for each other, the agony of separation, taboos of the times, and the hardships endured by women in a joint-family system. 

“Crossing cultural, country, gender, and age boundaries, the author takes the reader on a tumultuous 100-year journey from India to America, shedding the shackles of a joint family and allowing the next generation the freedom to chart their destinies.”

Aggarwal began her decades-long creative career in New York City, where she worked for design firms for 10 years, designing album covers for famous bands and musicians, including the Beatles, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Mantovani, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and the Sugarhill Gang, among many others. 

She then spent 25 years running her own design firm, AQ Graphic Inc., which she founded in 1980 in Rockland County, NY. During that time, she also raised her two children, involved herself with several community and arts organizations, and founded two award-winning nonprofits, Asian Women’s Alliance for Kinship and Equality (AWAKE) and The WorldFest New York.

For the last 45 years, Aggarwal has worked in various media, including graphic design, painting, photography and—more recently—digital art. She has also written several newspaper and magazine articles, and published poetry in literary magazine Spillwords Press.

Now retired and living in Petaluma, she continues to produce art prolifically. She paints by commission and also sells her paintings online at Saatchi Art (www.saatchiart.com). In addition, she incorporates her painting and digital artwork into one-of-a-kind Ahimsa—non-violence—silk scarves, ladies’ tops and purses, which she designs and manufactures herself.

A long-time member of OCA, Aggarwal exhibits and sells her paintings there on occasion. “I am excited about the live event and looking forward to it,” she says. At the event, she will read specific passages and letters from Forbidden Letters, show a video and several slide projections, and have a Q&A with the audience. She will follow her presentation with book sales and signing in the lobby, where her Ahimsa designer silk scarves will also be for sale. Refreshments will also be available to attendees.

OCA has wowed Sonoma County since 2010 with its acoustically sound auditorium, professional stage, art exhibition gallery, amphitheater and classroom space, where it hosts performances, literary events and visual-art exhibits year round. What, in addition to Aggarwal’s presentation of The Forbidden Letters: A True Story, can we expect from the center this busy, post-pandemic holiday season? 

A lot, according to board member Suze Cohan. Weekly musical performances include the Barbara Higbie and Friends Winter Solstice Concert Celebration and CD Release with Jami Sieber, Vicki Randle, Michaelle Goerlitz and Dewayne Pate on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 7pm.

The next day, Sunday, Dec. 18, at 4pm, Sonoma County Poets celebrates the long-awaited anthology, The Freedom of New Beginnings: Poems of Witness and Vision, edited by Phyllis Meshulam and released in August. Included in the anthology are numerous Sonoma County poets laureate emerita. New Sonoma County poet laureate, Elizabeth Herron, will start 2023 off with a reading of her new poetry collection on Jan. 29.

“The literary arm of OCA prides itself on discovering and promoting interesting debut authors like Hemu Aggarwal, while at the same time championing long-published Sonoma County authors and poets,” Cohan says. “People are coming back, some still cautious—and masking—but all still loyal to our incredible and diverse offerings at OCA.”

Sunday, Nov. 20 at 4pm, Occidental Center for the Arts’ Literary Series presents: ‘The Forbidden Letters. A True Story,’ by Hemu Aggarwal. OCA, 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental. 707.874.9392. Occidentalcenterforthearts.org

Mark Fernquest spends his time scribbling furiously in West County. He imagines he is a writer.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

North Bay Bohemian E-edition North Bay Bohemian E-edition