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"Language is a movement between scattered forms": Interview with Amitava Kumar

Par Amitava Kumar, Natacha Lasorak
Publié par Marion Coste le 25/10/2019

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Amitava Kumar is an Indian writer and journalist who teaches literature at Vassar College. In this interview, he talks about his collection of essays ((Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate)) (2004) and his novel ((Immigrant, Montana)) (2017), and focuses on the notion of "home", immigration, the caste system and the political situation in India.


Question: Thank you Amitava Kumar for accepting this interview. In the introduction to the collection of essays that you edited in 2003, which is called Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, you state that there is no place like home. You specify that this can either mean that there can be no other place like home or that the idea of home itself is a delusion. How does this phrase resonate with you?

Amitava Kumar: I think much of the writing done by immigrants has an idea of home in the background. And often, it is a nostalgic idea. It is the idea that tells the reader that the immigrant experience is about the discovery of a strange place, or of the experience of estrangement. But what is also disturbing to me about that is that sometimes immigrants, filled with nostalgia, try to recreate a home; and it is a delusional exercise, because often, such homes recreate customs that are retrogressive, reactionary. Women often become the carriers of such a culture, of this idea of purity, so it is often a problematic notion. On one hand you want to understand nostalgia or, when someone is flung into an alien situation, their desire for home. On the other hand, you have to be cautious about what I say about that process where the soft emotion of nostalgia is turned into the hard emotion of fundamentalism.

Question: You say in the essay Lunch with a Bigot that home could be perhaps found in the writing. How did your own experience of immigration or expatriation change you as a writer?

Amitava Kumar: [It] is my understanding that if you do not belong where you have arrived, and do not have the luxury of returning to the place from where you have come, if you are somehow stuck in the middle, the only place you have is language. Language gives you the means of describing who you have become, where you have come from, where you are going. All of that can only be done, for me, on the page. So what role has that played? How has that understanding informed my writing? I have felt that the language I am writing in has to be a mixed language, so that an in-between person presents his reality in an in-between language. I think that sometimes, people who have felt their lives becoming fragmented should therefore write in fragments. So in part, my understanding of language is this mixed idea of trying to write, not as if you had a still centre, but as if everything was de-centred, and therefore your writing, or your language, is a movement between scattered forms.

Question: What would you say happens to two notions that are quite important in India, what happens to caste and class after immigration?

Amitava Kumar: I don’t know. Because I have not done a sociological study. How caste gets transformed or doesn’t. I do know that in villages in India for example, when there is a movement to the city, a greater degree of anonymity allows people to escape the burden of caste. Now, when people come here, caste would not come into play so much with what others expect of, let’s say, someone who was from a low caste. In other words the foreigner, the Indian person of a particular caste would not encounter caste prejudice from someone else. But there can be colour prejudice, etc.

Natacha Lasorak: And class prejudices.

Amitava Kumar: Yeah. The class thing I think is a little bit more complicated than I wanted to say to you. But you know in America, Trump has been right now very anti-immigration. But Trump should not be represented as someone who is the first person to do something like that. There have been laws like the Asian Exclusion Act and other things that have had a long role in the last hundred and fifty years. What happened was that with the Cold War, the US and Russia raced to put man on the moon. They needed educated elite and it was convenient for people to be brought in from India for example. Doctors and engineers came here. Now I bet the vast majority of the people who came earlier were all upper caste. And therefore were from upper class. It is only in recent years that there is a greater influx of working-class migrants in those countries. […] I’ve spent only a few hours in Paris but I noticed in the two places I went that the cooks were Pakistani or Indian. So that’s very interesting. If earlier there was migration of the educated elite, now there is a migration of the working-class, and often of undocumented workers. That’s very interesting in my opinion because that experience has not really been given expression in our writing, because you have to be of that class to be able to speak of that experience. If I have never worked in a restaurant, if I have not been washing dishes for years I do not think I can write about it […].

Natacha Lasorak: Some authors have tried, I was thinking of The Inheritance of Loss [by Kiran Desai] or The Years of the Runaway [by Sunjeev Sahota].

Amitava Kumar: Compared to every twenty titles that come out in a month about arranged marriages, mangoes and dance – but those [you mentioned] are just the right examples […]. Both are excellent books, but The Inheritance of Loss is wonderful.

Question: I wanted to ask you a question more specifically about your writing: you were speaking earlier about this idea that you have to find your writing in-between, which does not rely on the idea of a centre. In Immigrant, Montana, I was particularly struck by your use of Agnes Smedley’s memoir, Daughter of the Earth, and in a tiny footnote, you specify that “Her book is neither a memoir, nor simply a novel; and when I read it I thought Smedley offered us a model for writing.” Was it your model for writing Immigrant, Montana?

Amitava Kumar: You know, I often work with this understanding that any work of art, or certainly any work of literature, also tells the reader how it is to be read. In other words, if I am reading a good book, I would think – but I might be entirely mistaken – that it tells you somewhere how it has been written or what are its purposes. There are little secrets there. I was trying to do a little bit of that. The only reason I am hesitating a bit in saying that that would be my model, though I did think of her, because remember, in her memoir, there’s a very interesting thing that happens. The only thing I remember very clearly in this instance, to give you an answer, is that the name she gives to the narrator of her novel is the name she had as a secret name when she was running her clandestine activities with the Indian revolutionaries. And that was very interesting to me, because it made me think that I worked hard – my narrator has a very provincial Indian name, Kailash, but I worked hard at inventing it in a way and working with it so that it begins to seem as if it is my name also, because an Irish friend of his in college calls him Kalashnikov, and then someone else calls him AK47 and then it becomes AK, which is my initials. The other thing I was thinking is, at one point, my narrator says – and again in the footnote – that he had thought of a title like The Man Without A Nation. It is really early in the book. And then he thought of Philip Roth’s book, The History of Pleasure. That is another thing, there are many models. I believe that one should have five or six books as models for any one book you are writing.

Natacha Lasorak: What particularly struck me is that when you speak about the narrator in the footnote, there are also footnotes in which the narrator hints at books which exist in real life. It is a very in-between situation.

Amitava Kumar: Yes, it is a very deliberate blurring of the line between the real and the unreal. You know why? Because I think that it has been a great goal of mine that someone reading something I have written should think that this is a report from lived life. So even when I am inventing it, I am trying to give enough details to make it seem real. Gabriel García Márquez, who was known as the master of magical realism, always said that to make journalism fraudulent, all it needs is one false thing. But to make fiction real, all it needs is one real thing. So a woman can be leaving the ground and ascending into the heavens, just by holding a sheet, but if you give the detail of a specific brand name or a colour, it becomes real. If you say “and then the boy, holding the balloon, left the Earth. But as he was leaving, he saw a packet from Amazon arrive”, [it just gives a sense of things being a little blurry].

Question: Going back to this in-betweenness, I also wanted to talk about the way in which you include passages from other texts, as well as pictures and photographs. As a reader, I sometimes found myself trying to look for a picture that you describe – for example in a photo exhibition and then you want to go and have a look at the picture itself. Is this form of collage also a form of working on the in-betweenness? Do you have a specific interest in photography yourself?

Amitava Kumar: Do you know W. G. Sebald? Here is a writer, a Jewish writer, who as a boy was taken out of Germany, and sent to England. He is writing about the Holocaust, but he does not mention the Holocaust. […] It is about the recovery of memory, except it is not a complete recovery of memory. He uses these pictures, often badly produced, they are unclear […]. I think he would use these images which are a bit blurry or lack detail, because he does not want to say that anything can be illustrated clearly, everything is a little bit unclear. Memory is unclear. So that is an inspiration in the back. John Berger is another writer who used images or spoke about images, not as illustrations, but instead to dramatize what is happening between words and image. In my case, […] I was playing with the reader when the narrator’s girlfriend and he are looking at photographs, and there is a photograph of the migrants in Bombay, and he says “If I ever write a book, I’ll call it The Migrants.” It was just a joke, like a little pleasure. What do we do as readers? We inhabit many worlds and some of the worlds we inhabit are the worlds of our books. When you are reading […] my book, you are also remembering Kiran Desai or Sunjeev Sahota, or anyone else. In this sense, why shouldn’t we, as writers, recognize that the world my narrator lives in is also a world made up of books? That is why I wanted put a sense of images, films…

Question: I’ll quote you in Lunch with a Bigot: “I’m a citizen of the world created by Bollywood.” What do films, or Bollywood films, give you?

Amitava Kumar: They give me a reason to cry a lot while watching movies, they give me a reason to get up and think that I am ready to dance anytime a certain song comes. Bollywood really gives me a language: this is an exaggerated, hyperbolic language often, a language of emotions. I can be in a train, in India especially, and if I hear a song, a whole world is conjured. The other thing Bollywood gives me is – I mean, it gives me everything! It really does. And when there is smart writing which happens in some Bollywood films, you can see how much more powerful it is than simply literature, because it is reaching so many people. There is a young writer, who wrote recently about a lower-caste man who has an affair with an upper-caste woman, and the movie is called Masaan. It is such a powerful movie. He came to one of my readings and I told him “Boss, you must have dinner with me, I want to talk to you”. And the songs are amazing. It is a very good film. 

Question: Coming back to your role as a teacher, you wrote in Lunch with a Bigot, that as a teacher, you encouraged your students to become journalists. Did journalism transform your writing of fiction, or does fiction influence your writing of articles?

Amitava Kumar: I want my students to write journalism, because I sometimes think that in seminars, but also in creative writing classes, they are encouraged to be by themselves. And I find that defeating, because the world is a rich place. If you stay in your room, and think you can write about – you are eighteen years old and you think you can write a memoir, where is the life that you have lived? Instead, if you go out, fifty feet from your classes, you will meet a person whose life is a strange thing, and they can tell you something. Or, forget someone else and their life – where was this paper made? Where did it come from? This piece of furniture – who made it? How has it lasted so long? Just find that out. I was earlier telling you about this jacket: there is one town in my state where the weavers are all Muslims.  And the [silk] fields belong to Hindus. When there is a riot, the two communities are at each other’s throat. If you just discover how this has been woven together, it is a history of two communities co-existing. Stories can be told, and that is what I encourage my students to do. Someone will come up with this idea of writing a memoir, and when they say that, my heart sinks. I slip into quick depression. I tell them: “Have you spoken to your grandmother, ever? Find her story, before it is too late.”

Has it influenced my writing? Yes. What happened was, for example, I was writing a book when I saw a star in a Bollywood film, and he had an explosive energy on the screen. Then I heard that he was from my town. I thought I had to find out more about him. Doing these interviews and going to his village, talking to him and travelling with him, I began thinking of doing journalistic work. Who are the guards outside the homes of the Bollywood stars? They were all from where I am from. What about the women? In these cheap locations, there were prostitutes who were from my part of the world, and I went and talked to them. What are the dances that the men ask you to do all the time? What did you eat today? What did you tell your parents? When do you get home? Questions like that. That allowed me to fill out all sorts of things. And maybe it was a cop-out, but in the book that I am telling you all this about, I made the narrator a journalist, so there is a reason for him to discover this. But even if he were not a journalist, as in the book we are talking about, I have often found that journalism is an entry into so many worlds. Of course, fiction is the final frontier. Because you have got the real things in the world, but then when you invent something and make it new, you surprise the hell out of yourself. That is why I still hold it up to a higher standard. 

Question: For the last question, I would like to ask you about your experience in the Jaipur Festival in 2012, where you, along with Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi publicly read extracts from The Satanic Verses, which is a novel by Salman Rushdie, which has been banned in India for the last thirty years. How would you describe the political situation in India and its influence on literary production?

Amitava Kumar: It is really bad actually, in my opinion. As we are likely to discover while I am in Lyon, […] the election results are likely to be very depressing, the right wing will return to power in India. A certain kind of stupid nationalism is expected of everyone – it is a cover for all sorts of things. You can be in a cinema hall, and if you do not stand up when the national anthem is played, they will beat you up. If you criticize the Prime Minister, they will threaten you. A woman called Gauri Lankesh, a year and a half ago or so, was killed outside her home: she was a local journalist, totally unafraid. People like Arundhati Roy are threatened all the time. So the situation is not very good at all. […] Salman Rushdie calls the journalists “Modi’s Toadies” because Modi is the name of the Prime Minister. [...] The journalists censor themselves. [They have become sycophants]. They provide the questions to the candidates, especially the Prime Minister […] We have become a nation of sycophants. That does not promise well for literature.

Question: Do you feel a constraint in writers you know in India who censor themselves as well?

Amitava Kumar: No actually, come to think of that. Some of them have though. I saw a poet whom I had met at Jaipur become the most fawning devotee when interviewing the Prime Minister on a London stage. His name is Prasoon Joshi. I think he is an embarrassment to the literary community. But no, to answer your question directly: writers have actually returned their awards in recent years, saying they want freedom of expression. Some writers are doing wonderfully, hats off to them. I envy them. I am here, so far away, and I have no consequences to suffer from other than someone trolling me on Twitter and calling me a traitor. But those people, they run real risks, and I admire them immensely.

Natacha Lasorak: Thank you Amitava Kumar.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Amitava Kumar, Natacha Lasorak, ""Language is a movement between scattered forms": Interview with Amitava Kumar", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2019. Consulté le 15/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/interview-with-amitava-kumar