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Priyanka Mattoo revisits her incredible journey in memoir, ‘Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones’

From Kashmir to Los Angeles, where she joined forces with Jack Black

The writer, journalist, and filmmaker Priyanka Mattoo (Kashmir/India/USA), New York, New York, November 21, 2023. Beowulf Sheehan

You may have moved around a lot during your life, but I bet your passport isn’t nearly as thick as Priyanka Mattoo’s. She has lived in 32 different places in 40 years.

Mattoo’s life was totally upended in August 1989 when she was only 9-years-old. She and her parents were living outside of Kashmir at the time, saving up to complete their family house, when her community was forced to Kashmir because of escalating violence in the region and their home was destroyed.

Mattoo was never able to move back to Kashmir, but she has made a great life for herself, nonetheless. She moved to England and then to Michigan.

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Mattoo now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children. She’s a former talent agent. And she was Jack Black’s partner at production company Electric Dynamite.

Mattoo captures this vast journey in her memoir, “Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones,” and gives WPR’s “BETA” some insight into her story.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Doug Gordon: Why did you choose “Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones” as the title of your debut memoir?

Priyanka Mattoo: I had originally sold this sort of series of lighthearted essays, which I was calling “Sixteen Kitchens” about my family and all the moving around.

And then I started writing the book, and it became so much more than that. It became much more layered. I cried a lot. I laughed a lot. And by the time I had the manuscript, I realized that the title did not fit.

So it was kind of like having a baby, that I had decided the name of before I met the baby. So once I met the baby, I stomped around for a few weeks trying to think of the perfect title, and nothing really worked. I knew it had to be something that was really going to punch people in the gut. In a good way.

And I came across this phrase, which I talk in the book, about my love of the Kashmiri language, how specific it is.

DG: You were born in the city of Srinagar in Kashmir. Your life was totally upended when you were only nine. What happened?

PM: I was born in Kashmir, and then we moved abroad when I was very small, to kind of gather money to build this house back home, always with the idea of coming back because people didn’t leave Kashmir at the time.

It’s a beautiful place and a very close-knit community. And so while we were abroad, there was a rapid uprising and militant activity in the late 80s, which caused my entire community to leave.

And so my whole family — my extended family — left this one winter and never went back. Everyone settled elsewhere. So the community has been since very scattered and sparse throughout the world. And we never went home again.

And the house, which we did end up building, is gone forever. And the homeland is just a memory.

DG: That’s really something, like a heavy weight to have to bear over all these years, isn’t it?

PM: It has been. I think my feeling was always, listen, we’re physically safe, you know? I think I comforted myself with that for a long time. We’re safe. We got out. We have our bodies. We have our families. We have opportunities elsewhere. We are technically fine.

But it wasn’t until I got much older that I really allowed myself to feel the psychological and emotional weight of what it actually feels like to never feel like you’re home or can go home ever again. And that’s what the book’s about.

DG: You actually joined forces with Jack Black as a partner at his production company, Electric Dynamite.

PM: Yes, yes. I left being an agent because he (Jack Black) was getting an offer to start a TV side of his company and he needed a producing partner to build a slate for him. And I had been working with him in an agent capacity for many years. Originally, when I was an assistant, I was his agency assistant.

So I had known him from day one, and we really liked and trusted each other. So I went over there, and it was a small operation. It was just me and him for a few years. And he’s just the best — I mean, the best. I have my husband’s permission to say he’s the nicest, best person I’ve ever met.

DG: You worked with him on the scripted comedy web series Ghost Ghirls.” Can you tell us about that experience?

PM: Jack can say that it’s the best show that nobody knows about, because it is. It was a digital series that we made for a defunct platform called Yahoo Screen. And it was a really hard, funny procedural comedy about two girls who saw ghosts. And I still I still think it’s one of the funniest, best things we’ve ever made together.