Kiran Desai: icon of the new breed of writers.
Among them is the Indian born, 35-year-old Kiran Desai, daughter of Anita Desai, well known author of many books, three of which were short listed for the Booker Prize ("Clear Light of Day" (1980), "In Custody" (1984) and "Fasting, Feasting" (1999). Anita Desai currently teaches writing at MIT.
Kiran Desai has more to her credit than being the daughter of Anita Desai. She won the 50,000 [pounds sterling] Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2006 for her novel "The Inheritance of Loss," published by Hamish Hamilton. Although the headlines said a "daughter wins Man Booker Prize," but with "The Inheritance of Loss" the younger Desai became the youngest to win the Booker Prize, equivalent of Pulitzer in the US. The book is still on the New York Times bestseller list, more than a year after the publication of its paperback edition. This author recently interviewed Kiran Desai in New York City for World and I Online. I had also interviewed her mother, Anita Desai, years ago in New Delhi. Both Desais present a wonderful picture of modern and old guard generations of a unique spectrum of literary life.
From capturing the landscape in the shadow of Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal, to the shaky relations between different races in the cultural melting pot that is New York City, "The Inheritance of Loss" is a sprawling novel of memorable characters. The elderly, indignant judge, who tries to forget his past, is often reminded at every step by the same haunting thoughts. His granddaughter, Sai, is on her own agenda, growing up and falling in love with her Nepali tutor. While their cook, whose son Biju in the US is on a path quite different from the picture of hope his father has imagined for himself. It is events, in Kalimpong and America that make these people come out of their safe haven and push them to reveal buried truths.
The book's title--"The Inheritance of Loss"--true to its meaning, shows what is lost between generations while also capturing a failure to hold on to the innocence of childhood, either to maintain a sense of purity in the face of brutal life, or the ability to hope and yet be sent crashing down, bit by tiny bit, every day. The novel offers an insightful and often funny commentary on multiculturalism and post-colonial society. In this, the book reflects its author who tries to rediscover her Indian-ness. "I see everything through the lens of being Indian ... I can't really write without that perspective," she comments.
Kiran Desai tries to portray "what it means to live between East and West and what it means to be an immigrant," and also explores in-depth, what happens when a Western element is brought into a country that is not of the West but which retains effects leftover from the British colonial days in India, and experiences a cultural colonialism happening again, "with India's new relationship with the States." She wanted to discover, "What happens when you take people from a poor country and place them in a wealthy one. How does the imbalance between these two worlds change a person's thinking and feeling? How do these changes manifest themselves in a personal sphere, a political sphere, over time?"
She adds, "These are old themes that continue to be relevant in today's world, the past informing the present, the present revealing the past."
Did she feel uncomfortable accepting the Man Booker Prize, because it was a commonwealth prize? She comments that, although there may have been all kinds of reasons of that sense to turn the prize down: "You can drag that ethical dilemma into every single aspect of your life, and that is very much what my book is about."
She finds it hard to make any kind of rule, as things can get "messy and mixed up with the rest of the world, and mixed up with sad and difficult things." She explains that there was no end to things which can make you feel guilty. "Would I buy this sweater? Where is it made? It's by someone poor in China and someone horrible is making money out of it. Am I going to eat this bit of fruit picked by whom? It infects every single thing. But I stand by the book's ethical sense, and it's a book that certainly says the opposite of many things that flags stand for."
Kiran Desai was born in India in 1971. She lived in Delhi until she was 14, when she and her mother left first for the UK and then for the US, where she has lived ever since. She completed her schooling in Massachusetts before attending Bennington College; Hollins University and Columbia University, where she studied creative writing, taking two years off to write "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard." However, she still holds on to her Indian passport. She says she could become an American citizen, but then George Bush won and she changed her mind. "I've just been unable to bring myself to do so." She explains, "but again that's silly because of course I pay taxes there and don't vote, so it's hypocritical in a way, but it held me back."
Often she confronts this dilemma, if she really wants to surrender her Indian citizenship, but she resists it. "I feel less like doing it every year because I realize that I see everything through the lens of being Indian. It's not something that has gone away; it's something that has become stronger. As I've got older, I have realized that I can't really write without that perspective."
But when she started writing about the immigrant experience in New York that she realized she needed to return to India. And then, she realized that India has changed and moved on, "I find myself at a disadvantage." Yet she goes back to India every year. There are problems she faces there too because, "it belongs to Indian authors living in India. The subject belongs to them. So the only way I could put this book together was to go back to the India of the 1980s, when I left."
On the surface, "The Inheritance of Loss" appears to be celebrating the mixing of cultures, while it has some hidden melancholy. Does she feel liberated or restricted by her dual cultures? She feels "incredibly lucky, enriching, to see both sides." But she also worries thinking about, "what's next?"
She explains that her book contains "many little bits and pieces, of half-stories," While immigrants in a basement is not the whole thing. "So I do think will I ever have an entire story to tell?" But she enjoys being part of this dual nationality. The best part she feels that "she could live anywhere." She adds that, "I feel as comfortable anywhere as I feel uncomfortable anywhere."
If she has not been able to accept American citizenship then she has also been unable to adopt American style of writing. She attended a creative writing course at Columbia University, of which her first novel "Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard" came into being. She wanted to start afresh. "It was very hard for me to write like that," she explains. "They demand you write a certain way because you have to present your work in half-hour installments. You have to polish only a little bit of it. It suits the short story more than the novel."
She admits that one can not "sit there with the big, huge monster [novel] and function in any kind of way as an American writer, because you constantly have to make grant applications, and you either have to exit that world or your work must change."
She decided to exit. "I didn't apply for grants or writers' centers; I didn't join writers' groups. I just couldn't do it. It didn't seem an honest way to write to me. When you write on your own, you can write the extremes. No one else is watching and you can really go as far as you need to."
Instead she lived on her advance, stretching it further by moving to Mexico for a while, occupying small rooms in overcrowded houses in New York. It ended because; "I was very poor, and everyone in my family was saying, 'Oh, you're going to have to get a job. My mother was the one person who stood by the book, but everyone else was saying 'It's awful, you really have to be responsible, you must get a job, and you have to get health insurance!'"
Kiran Desai was in New York when she heard the announcement of her award and later went to London, but she actually wanted to be in India. "Because they (Indians) care for the Booker so much, sometimes it means something in America and sometimes it doesn't. It would have been a lot of fun to be in Delhi, with lots of family and all the generations."
She finds great joy in writing. "You feel that joy that you don't have to think about political links and fights between nations at all because your own relationships with countries are completely different. I realized along ago that is what she (my mother) had. Going to book readings with her, and see her talk to her readers was real lesson in the power of literature."
The young writer confides that the biggest influence on her writing has been from her own mother. "Ever since I was growing up, my earliest memories of my mother is that she was very involved in our lives as mother but I also had a realization about her that she also had another life. That was one of the mysteries about her, she had a private life."
She gets nostalgic, "I remember her bookshelves all over the house, her intensity of reading, of thought and her integrity. There has always been an immense integrity about her, both as a mother and writer as well."
Kiran Desai was among the final six, along with works by Kate Grenville, MJ Hyland, Hisham Matar, Edward St Aubyn, and Sarah Waters--none of which she had read. But there was an added charm to Desai's win, as her mother, Anita Desai, has been nominated for the prize three times.
She earlier appeared in the prestigious New Yorker's India fiction issue. Her debut novel the "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," also appeared in 1997's Mirrorwork, an anthology of 50 years of Indian writing edited by Salman Rushdie.
With the publication of "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard" she was called a writer with tremendous potential. And then, she disappeared, taking the next seven years off, resurfacing again with "The Inheritance of Loss." It took four years to write her first novel; seven for her second, it seems like an enormous amount of time, until you begin to read it. That's when the care lavished on each of those sentences manifests itself.
Kiran Desai reads all different kinds of books. "But I like Ichiguru's work a lot and Kenzaburo Oe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Narayan. One of my favorite books is Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, which I read over and over again." She also read a lot of poetry and likes reading America writers. Among American writers who have influences her include Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor.
The publishing world is growing smaller. A lot of Indian writers are being published in this country, more than ever before. It is a whole new world. In England, there's always been much more of a tradition of publishing Indian writers. "It's interesting when you are writing in a country where the publishing world is not as well-developed as it is in the west, and I think it's changing now in India. Suddenly, publishing is growing much quicker; they're publishing many more books than ever before and more people are buying books than ever before, so it's a change over there as well."
How does she cope with writing, she says she is quite adaptable in any place. "I really like working in the kitchen; I find that wherever I am I work near the kitchen or in the kitchen itself. I can constantly make myself little things to eat or cups of tea; I find it's the perfect balance, in that I can write a bit, eat a cookie, and then I write a bit more, eat some ice cream. Reward myself--it's constant rewards. And I work best in the morning; as soon as I get out of bed I start writing, and late at night. I have dead space in the afternoon, which I think comes from growing up with an afternoon siesta; my brain just shuts off from about two to five.
"I should write a cookbook" or, "I should write for food magazines. And then I get drawn back to writing fiction again. But yes, food is a big part of my life."
She confides that she does not think about the audience and writes for herself. "Write what you know, and that sort of thing, which I don't believe at all. I think one of the great joys of writing is to try and explore what you don't know, that's exciting to me. There are all kinds of little things--show, don't tell--I just wouldn't pay attention to any of that really. I don't think you can write according to a set of rules and laws; every writer is so different. I can't imagine how they come up with these rules--they're really ludicrous. You can't learn to write in that fashion. What inspired me really was reading, reading a lot and learning from other writers."
Her learning the craft come from by reading and looking at other books from a technical point of view. "Also, who your mother is makes a big difference to the way the world looks at you." What she chose to do in life would, possibly, not attract as much attention if she were to have picked a different profession. What Kiran wanted, however, was to write.
She has a few nationalities in her. Her maternal grandmother was German, but left before the World War II and never returned. Her grandfather was a refugee from Bangladesh. Her paternal grandparents came from Gujarat, and her grandfather was educated in England. Even though she has not lived in India since she was 14, Kiran loves to go back to the family home in Delhi every year.
Kiran Desai might not plan her books before writing, but she does have plans to go away after she finishes university. She plans to go to Mexico with her mother, where they plan to write. Because it is writing she wants to go back to and it is writing that gives her joy. She smiles, "I miss it dreadfully."
Surekha Vijh is an award-winning poet who has been a journalist for The Washington Times, The Times of India, and The New India Times, as well as a staff member of the BBC in London.
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|Title Annotation:||BOOK WORLD|
|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2008|
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