Amitava Kumar is a writer, journalist, novelist, and poet. Born in India, Kumar is Professor of English at Vassar College in New York, where he teaches prose, essay, film, and news writing courses. He is the author of several works of non-fiction, including Passport Photos, Bombay-London-New York, and Husband of a Fanatic. His novel Home Products was short-listed for India’s most prestigious literary award. Currently, he is writing a report on the global war on terror. For more about Amitava Kumar, please visit his blog.
Who are you?
I am a writer who knows that the pain in my back is from a dagger called academics. You can see the blood pooling at my feet, you say. But I can’t take the dagger out. A part of me believes that the blade stuck in me is keeping all the blood inside. It’ll all be over if I were to do anything rash right now. I wasn’t a good student when I was studying in India, in high school and later in college. I wanted to write, but didn’t know how. When I came to this country, I began to read and then the old ambition to write faded. Instead, I wanted to read more difficult, theoretical books. That ambition lasted a long time. I have now returned to writing but I am a changed man. I can’t unlearn everything I have learned, good and bad.
What was the last book you read? How did you like it?
Right now I’m in the middle of a fat anthology called True Crime. It is required reading for a writing class that I’m teaching. I have only so far read a few pieces in it. Just today I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s report on a criminal called Caryl Chessman. Such sharp writing! Short, descriptive sentences about the man’s actions, followed by equally short, incisive remarks which are quick to interpret and present judgment. I’m liking the book very much; I hope my students are too. The last book that I read, which was so many weeks ago, was Love Is A Four-Letter Word, a collection of break-up stories. It is edited by Michael Taeckens and several of the contributors are my friends; I recommend the book highly, especially if you have ever fallen out of love. While reading it I experienced joy, laughter, anger, despair, and about five different kinds of regret.
Who is your idol writer? Why?
V.S. Naipaul has been called the finest writer of the English sentence. But that is not why he has occupied the highest place on my private pedestal. I have been drawn to him by his power of observation, the ability to convey to his readers a sense of his past, and also his often weird but striking judgment. What has been most powerful for me has been his repeated dramatization of the scene of writing, and thereby also a writer’s life. I noticed that about him when I began to write and it has been very important to my own formation.
What is your favorite unknown or under-appreciated book?
My friends in cities like Delhi, writing in Hindi or other Indian languages, often place little riffs in their books where characters will talk bitterly about not being visible because they don’t speak or write in English. Which means that when people ask me the question you have, I think about those writers who feel they’ve been robbed of a place in the sun. Last winter I read a novella by the Hindi writer Uday Prakash that had been translated into English, The Girl With the Golden Parasol. I was touched by its grace, and by its anger.
At the moment, what popular books are being bathed in over praise?
I will not come off well in this answer. I confess that I wasn’t able to complete Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Earlier, I had read his By Night in Chile, and that short novel drew an unforgettable picture of people and art in a fascist culture. But I found The Savage Detectives shapeless, and its garrulity didn’t sit well with me. Many people that I admire swear by him, but give me J.M. Coetzee any day.
What book do you put on the coffee table when you want to impress your guests?
What coffee table? What guests? I have a six-year-old and another baby on the way. Kids’ toys and other paraphernalia take up much of the space where a coffee table could be. If and when guests come, they are greeted by a flurry of apologies and then we quickly spread a sheet where we can put a few bowls and a bottle of wine. Usually, I hide books anyway. I don’t want peanut butter smeared on them with little paws. Ten-fifteen years ago, I’d still keep my books in my study but wanted to display in the living-room, perhaps because I wanted to be thought of as artisitic, journals like ArtForum and ARTnews. Well, I don’t blame myself. They were the ones with bright, inviting covers.
Who is the Joyce of Delhi?
It is my friend Siddhartha Chowdhury who has published a novel called Patna Roughcut. He and I both grew up in Patna. He now lives and works in Delhi. His second novel should be out soon. It’s called Day Scholar. An excerpt from that book appears in Delhi Noir, a new collection brought out by Akashic Books. I thought of him when you posed this question because his language is new and yet it is marked by Patna and Delhi. When I think of his language I tell myself that this is what it means to be rooted and yet to be inventive.
Do you have any quirky reading habits a Martian would observe while studying you?
I only read when I’m lying down in bed.
Why do you read?
I wish I read to discover new language. It would be great if there was a pure side of me that always demanded that. Instead I read to bring some sort of order to my life. Which is to say, I read so that I can take the chaos of the outer and the inner world and reduce it to the neatly-ordered lines on the page.