“You Turn Yourself into an Outsider”: An interview with Anita Desai

by    /  January 14, 2014  / 1 Comment

Anita Desai

Anita Desai. Photo: Bookchums.

As a child in India, the only thing Anita Desai wanted was to see her books on the family bookshelf, sitting next to those by Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Wolf. Seventy years later, and living in New York, Desai is now a long way from her childhood home. But with a career that has spanned sixteen novels, and most recently, a collection of novellas entitled The Artist of Disappearance (2011), one could make the claim that, in a way, Anita Desai has fulfilled her childhood dream.

This past October Desai came to Pittsburgh as a featured writer with the Prague Writers’ Festival‘s first appearance in the United States. On October 16 she also read selections from her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay at a salon-style reading hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.

On the day of the Prague Writers’ Festival kick-off, Desai spoke with Sampsonia Way in the lobby of Pittsburgh’s William Penn Omni Hotel. In this interview she discusses her childhood of writing and reading, her creative process over the years, her state of hereditary exile, and the complicated perspective on India and the West that it has afforded her.

  1. Anita Desai
  2. Anita Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India. She was educated at Delhi University. She has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, with Clear Light Of Day (1980), In Custody (1994) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). She has published several novels, children’s books and short stories. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Girton College, Cambridge. She teaches in the Writing Program at MIT.

How did you discover you were a writer?

From a very young age I knew that this was I what I wanted to do. Before I could even spell I was putting letters together to make words. We also had lots of books in our home and everyone read a lot. My family would see me sitting in a corner, scribbling all the time, so they used to address me as “The Writer.” I just wanted my books to be on the bookshelf too.

What was the first thing that you wrote?

A little piece that was published in a children’s magazine when I was nine. Looking back, I don’t know if it’s lucky or unlucky to have such a closed vision so early on in life. I see others trying many things before they set out on their life’s work, and I never had that. While I wish I could do more, I’ve been incredibly happy just being able to read. For me, as a child, the greatest joy was getting my pocket money for the month and racing off to the bookshop to see what I could buy.

What were you reading at that time?

In my early years I was influenced by the British classics of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. Those are the ones we read, but as I progressed I also discovered Russian authors. It was a great revelation to learn that as a writer you could delve so deeply into the human mind and experience. People like [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and [Leo] Tolstoy write with such a range of human experience, but the one I particularly love is [Nikolai] Gogol. He wrote some of greatest short stories that have ever been written. There’s an abstract element to his work that seems somehow mysterious, and a little vague, so I keep returning to try and discover those secrets.

Your most recent work, The Artist of Disappearance, is a collection of three novellas that was published two years ago. Are you working on anything right now?

I’ve been absorbed in [Kiran Desai] my daughter’s work, seeing her through the difficult stages of the novel she’s writing. But in the process I’ve been remembering that it’s hard to keep up my stamina through a long piece. I was very happy while working on The Artist of Disappearance because I restricted myself to the limited form of the novella and could do it with ease. In the future I’ll try to write more novellas. The novel takes a lot out of me.

Do you have a routine when you write?

I spend at least three hours at my desk every morning, whether I’m working on a book or not. I always told myself that a desk and a chair in a corner by myself is all I need. I like to have a window and a view too, but I mostly need to be alone when writing. I also write by hand and don’t use the computer until the end of the process. It’s fine for editing, but not for writing.

“I always told myself that a desk and a chair in a corner by myself is all I need.”

Can you describe what that writing process is like for you?

I find the first stage of writing a book exhilarating. It’s absorbing, but also frightening. You don’t know where you’ll go, where you’ll end up, or if it’s going to work at all. You have to get through long periods of self-doubt. I find this stage very difficult; therefore, it’s also the most interesting stage. Following that, I put the text aside for a while to come out of being so deep in my characters’ stories. Then I can see what the errors are and try to put them right.

I’ve also done a lot of research for many of the novels I’ve written, like Baumgartner’s Bombay. While writing books like that, I’m deeply absorbed in the research process. It takes a while before I can distance myself and prepare to go another round.

Do you have an editor who sees this work mid-process? What has your relationship with editors been like throughout your career?

When I started my writing career, there was no such thing as a fiction workshop in India and I had the sense that this was my work, it was for me to do. I was also afraid of taking it to be seen by anyone. I was afraid that their criticism or suggestions might deflect me from my path, lead me to throwing away what I’d done, or rewriting it the way someone else wanted me to. Also, I was reluctant to show it to family or friends because I couldn’t see how they could judge the work objectively. Now the first person I show my work to is an editor at the publishing house. I see this as a totally objective view that I should listen to. Sometimes an editor can be destructive if it’s somebody who doesn’t understand your work or what you’re doing, but over the years I’ve had some excellent editors who became good friends and whose views and suggestions I was keen to hear.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Yes, and I have one way of dealing with it: Turn to a book I love. It might be a book I read long ago, like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or it might be Nabokov’s Pnin. Also, I find it very helpful to read poetry, because poets have a particular receptivity to language and words. A prose writer can try to get away with an extra sentence or a paragraph, but a poet doesn’t allow a single line, a single bit of punctuation, to pass without being certain that it’s exactly what it needs to be. You read a bit of poetry, and it’s like hearing a tuning fork that strikes the right note.

You wrote the majority of your output in the first 20 years of your career—at the same time that you were raising four children. Have your best books been written at tranquil moments in your life or do you write better under stress?

I’ve always written better under stress. That’s when I feel compelled to write and tie my views and thoughts with reasons. It’s curious, but I did write more in those years. Then my children all grew up and I had much more time to myself without that constant feeling of guilt or needing to pay attention to them. As a result of that, I find I’m writing less. There’s just not a compulsion to write anymore.

Anita Desai in conversation at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about her latest book The Artist of Disappearance. Video: ABCBigIdeas via YouTube.

How do your early years of writing in India compare to the situation there for authors now?

There were no writers’ groups in India when I was starting out and, in the group I would have belonged to, there were very few Indian writers writing in English. There were perhaps half a dozen like me, but we were scattered all over the country. So I didn’t meet them, I didn’t belong to the rest of society, and because of this I was able follow my own stream of consciousness, uninterrupted. I was very fortunate in that way. Now that’s not possible. When I look at Indian writers today, there are so many of them and they belong to such large groups in both India and the West. They have such an extensive social life, I don’t know how they maintain an equilibrium. Some manage to do it very well, but it’s not easy.

Can you describe how the role of women in Indian society has changed over the course of your career?

India is a tremendously complex country. Certainly there has been change. If you go out on the street you can’t help but be impressed with the number of women going to work, catching the bus, or riding their bicycles. Yet they continue to play a very traditional role in the Indian family. In India, tradition and modernity, tradition and change, go hand-in-hand. It isn’t that one changes the other. After all, Indian women have had role models like Indira Gandhi, who served as a female prime minister long before most countries had one. There have also been female poets and writers from India but they continue to work within a tradition. However, the latest news from India about the number of rapes that still take place is horrific. Instances of rape have reportedly doubled between 1990 and 2008, and that number has even increased since then. How can that happen? Men still don’t accept women as human beings who must live their lives. It may take generations before there’s any real change.

Though, with that said, I don’t like to be a spokesperson for India, specifically for Indian women. If I meet people outside India, they usually ask me questions about my country that I can’t answer. Having lived outside for some time now, I find I’m not the right person to pronounce any judgments.

“I’m interested in people who live in a kind of exile…from the rest of society.”

Indeed you’ve lived in many places—Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mexico, and New York to name a few—since your novel Baumgartner’s Bombay was released in 1988. That was the last book that you wrote in India. Considering Hugo Baumgartner’s state of exile in the novel, I was wondering if you now see any parallels between yourself and your protagonist from 30 years ago?

I’ve often written about people who don’t go along with the mainstream, who go against the current, who live outside of the current, or are stranded whilst everyone else just flows along. I think I’m drawn to such characters. Even in the last three novellas that I wrote, that same type of character surfaces again and again. I’m interested in people who live in a kind of exile; it may not be political exile, but in some sense it’s exile from the rest of society. It may have something to do with my upbringing and my parents. My mother, having been German, lived most of her life in India and never felt able to return to Germany. After the war, we would sometimes suggest, “Why don’t you go back and visit your country? See who is still alive, who survived.” It would bring her to tears, and she’d say, “Don’t make me do that.” To have lost your country, your family, your society, so wholly, must have been a devastating experience. Somehow she survived it. My father was, in a sense, in exile too. He was from East Bengal, which then became East Pakistan. So his family lost their land and everything else they had there. Then he came to Bangladesh, which was another loss, another change. He didn’t feel at home there either and lived in North India, which was a foreign country to him. They were outsiders, and while there’s no reason why I should be that too—I was born there—I was brought up with the same sense of being an outsider. I certainly absorbed it from them.

Do you think that had anything to do with traveling throughout your life?

Yes. I think if you’ve uprooted yourself once, you can uproot yourself over and over again. You learn how to do without, how to do with less, how to abandon and leave, but it does become a pattern. It’s as if I am following in my parents footsteps.

But on a superficial level, by uprooting yourself, you experience the world from many different angles. With different eyes, through different experiences, you can see what you’ve taken for granted, what was given to you, what you were born with. On another level, it leaves you as an outsider for good. You’re always an observer rather than the participant, and that’s a big difference. I used to feel that, when I left India and came to live in the United States, I was just observing the States. It wasn’t for me to pass judgment on or comment on. But now I find that when I go back to India, I have become another type of outsider because the people I know have been through so much in my absence. They’ve had experiences that I didn’t share. It creates a distance. They know I didn’t participate; I can’t have the same feelings as them about certain events. So, in effect, you turn yourself into an outsider, but maybe that’s what a writer is to some extent.

What is the thing that you miss the most about India?

I love its sense of immense time. Once you arrive in India, time just slows down. One is so conscious of the past, even in the middle of a very modern city like Bombay. Every aspect of it is modern, but it’s built on the bedrock of the past. The past is at every turn; it’s in the manner in which you conduct yourself, the way you speak, the way you live. There’s a certain timeless quality to Indian life. There’s much more time for friendship, for thought. It’s what I miss most living in the West, which is why, ever since I came to in the States, I keep visiting Mexico. I recognize an Indian core there; it’s a very Indian country. I get the sense that every stone, every rock has a great history to it.

“History, convention, conformity—all of these are very powerful elements in India.”

As an outsider, what about India are you the most critical of?

Its inability to look at itself with a critical eye, its tendency to be so accepting, so passive, which makes any kind of change impossible. That’s what I was trying to say when I was speaking about Indian women. They’ve been brought up to live, think, and be in a certain way, and therefore they continue with a great deal of what they could have changed. History, convention, conformity—all of these are very powerful elements in India.

Despite the experiences you’ve had abroad, you still write about India. Has the perspective you have on the country ever limited your freedom of expression?

Something that I mentioned is how reluctant I become to make comments on the society I find myself in, whether it’s Indian society or my new Western society. One tends to doubt oneself and question, “Am I getting it right?” I think that’s why I continue to write about India. I suppose I feel more sure of myself when I’m writing an Indian scene. I lived there, I know it, I know I’m getting it right.

One Comment on "“You Turn Yourself into an Outsider”: An interview with Anita Desai"

  1. Nathanael January 24, 2014 at 1:38 pm ·

    This is an interesting article and interview. I’m not a writer, but am an avid reader and love to travel. In my experience, books are very important in learning about a foreign culture you are visiting and getting an insiders perspective. Whenever I travel I try to read something from the native author, ideally in the native language (although usually my language skills are not good enough to read a full book in a foreign language). It actually helps you feel like less of an outsider, and helps contextualize some of the things you have experienced.

    On the other hand, if the country you are in speaks a different language than your native language it is immensely comforting to be able to read books in your native language and about someplace other than where you are staying. It gives you a break from the constant bombardment of foreign ideas and sounds.

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